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Informed Voters & An Independent Judiciary

Posted By Dianne L. Sweeney, Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Dianne L. Sweeney
Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
2014 SCCBA President

As judicial elections heat up again, efforts are being made throughout the country to educate the electorate about the judicial branch—the only non-political branch of government—and how to best preserve fair and impartial elections.

The National Association of Women Judges has asked for our support of their informed voter project aimed at ensuring that our judicial system is free from special interest groups.  Unlike the upcoming gubernatorial and mayoral elections, judicial elections are not a popularity contest.  Good judging is about fair and diligent application of law.  If a litigant believes the judge made an error, the recourse is not to wait until to the next election but to file an appeal.  NAWJ suggests that voters seek information and evaluate judges based on the following areas: 

•    Integrity – A judge should be honest, upright and committed to the rule of law
•    Professional Competence – A judge should have a keen intellect, extensive legal knowledge and strong writing skills
•    Judicial Temperament  – A judge must be neutral, decisive, respectful and composed
•    Experience – A judge should have a strong record of professional excellence in the law
•    Service  –  A judge should be committed to public service and the administration of justice

As lawyers in this County, we have a special interest in ensuring that the candidates to our bench meet these criteria and are dedicated to the impartial and fair administration of justice for all.  We also have a responsibility to educate the community about the special nature of judicial elections and to support elections that are not based on the outcome of any specific case or special interest.  

SCCBA has a long and unique history in supporting fair elections and our local Bench.  As discussed a few months back, our Fair Elections Practices Commission provides candidates with ethical guidelines and works to confidentially resolve any campaign disputes.  Additionally, new this year to the SCCBA is our Judicial Assessment Committee (“JAC “) that allows lawyers to confidentially raise issues about a particular judicial officer and seek advice from well-established practitioners.  The JAC will also raise the issue with the Court if the lawyer so desires.  Later this year, we will also conduct our first assessment poll to see how the Courts are functioning and to gather information about your day-to-day experiences.  If you would like more information about the JAC you can find it on the SCCBA website at get involved >>> judicial assessment.

Lawyers in the Community
In other activities at the bar, we are sponsoring an event as part of our “Lawyers in the Community as well as the Courtroom” initiative.  As service to the community is a critical and rewarding part of our practice, I hope that you will join me, our Executive Committee and Board of Trustees at the Second Harvest Food Bank for an evening of service.  The feedback from our last event was overwhelmingly positive and helped us refocus on the basic needs of our community.  I hope to see you on August 13, 2014.

Budget Woes Trigger Consolidation in our Superior Court
We may also have new volunteer opportunities to support our Court in the months to come.  As many of you have now read, the Court announced that it has been forced to consolidate courtrooms by discontinuing civil, small claims and traffic calendars that are currently being heard in the Morgan Hill and Palo Alto courthouses and moving those appearances to the Downtown San Jose or Santa Clara courthouses.  Judge Walsh called me last week to apprise the Bar of the consolidation and to discuss the devastating impacts of the ongoing budget shortfalls.  Judge Walsh and our dedicated judiciary members and staff are doing all they can to keep current services in place, but you should expect to see longer lines and additional delays as the Court struggles to maintain its operations with insufficient resources.  Going forward, further changes may be required by the Court and we may be called upon to support the Court in new ways.  In the interim Judge Walsh wanted to convey to the Bar that he and his team are doing all they can to continue to provide services in all areas.   

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