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Judging the voters

June 11, 2006

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER did something Friday that every elected official probably dreams about: He overruled the voters. And though in this case his decision is justifiable, it's not something a democracy should encourage.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, ousted by voters Tuesday in favor of the operator of a bagel shop, will not be leaving the court after all. Many of Janavs' judicial colleagues expressed outrage at her defeat and called on Schwarzenegger to reappoint her to the bench, and the governor wasted no time in announcing that he would do just that, "as soon as she completes the paperwork."

Appointing judges is one of the duties of a governor, so Schwarzenegger was well within his rights, and Janavs has had an outstanding career as a jurist. This page and others have made it clear we believe she was unfairly targeted by an opponent because her Latvian name made her vulnerable. In judicial elections, voters often mark their ballots without any knowledge of the candidates except their three-word ballot descriptions -- and their names.

In this case, they rejected Janavs, who was rated "exceptionally well qualified" by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., in favor of Lynn Diane Olson, who was rated "not qualified." Olson has spent most of her career not practicing law but operating a bagel bakery in Manhattan Beach. She will still take her seat on the bench.

So all's well that ends well? Yes and no.

Janavs' defeat illustrates one of the problems with judicial elections: Voters don't know what they're doing. The solution to that problem is to either further politicize judicial elections and put candidates in the same position as their counterparts running for partisan office -- raising campaign cash and making promises -- or take judicial elections out of the hands of voters and make judgeships appointive only. This page prefers the second option.

But, just as the current system allows for the governor to appoint judges, it also allows candidates to challenge sitting judges and to put the issue before the voters. Voters may have acted ignorantly or foolishly in ousting Janavs, but that was their decision.

Although we continue to believe that Janavs largely was a victim of her name, there were undoubtedly some who went to the polls who were happy to vote against her out of anger at some of her rulings. Others were impressed with Olson's mailers. Still others may have been impressed with her bagels.

That's politics. We cannot simultaneously pretend that we respect voters' decisions and then overturn them if we think they were wrong.

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