With the general election almost upon us, and the contest between the two remaining judicial candidates to be decided, I would like to continue the thread I started some months ago on why I support Elizabeth Johnson.
A judge is the referee in our (intentionally) adversarial judicial system. An attorney is an advocate for one side or the other. This can be a challenging transition when one is elected or appointed to the bench. Lawyers who are extremely rabid in their particular area of advocacy are not suited to the bench.
However, I do not see that as in issue in this campaign. One thing a voter might key on is whether or not a candidate is currently an advocate for the side of the bar that the voter agrees with. That is an issue here since one candidate is an assistant district attorney. The assumption is that, if elected, the former-advocate-now-judge will render decisions favorable, in this instance, to the prosecution. That assumption, however hopeful, is false.
As I said earlier, judges are referees. Judges are bound by the concept of “stare decisis,” which is Latin for “let the decision stand.” This means that prior decisions by higher courts set the precedents that lower courts must follow. Failure to follow this rule sets the judge up for appeals. Appeals are always based on issues of law, not fact. If one reads appellate or supreme court decisions, one often runs across the phrase “… the trial court erred in… ,” which means the judge made a mistake. No one likes to be told they made a mistake, especially when it carries the significant sanction of reversing a conviction, so the incentive to follow the rule of law is very strong. If anyone thinks electing a prosecutor to the bench will mean a slam-dunk for subsequent prosecutions, that is not the going to be the case.
In some rare instances, if an attorney is sufficiently skilled to be selected, there can be an opportunity for a lawyer to function as a referee without being a judge. Elizabeth Johnson had the distinction to be selected for such a role. She spent part of her career working for the California Courts of Appeal in reviewing cases pending before those courts. Her responsibility was not to function as an advocate, but to research the applicable laws (statutory and case) in dispute to determine whether or not reversible error had occurred. Her conclusions and the consequent recommendations were then used as a basis for appellate court decisions. Having handled more than 9,000 such cases, she became an expert on the areas of jurisprudence likely to result in findings of reversible error, and thus overturned convictions. For someone aspiring to a judgeship, this is a very significant qualification, albeit limited to only an elite few attorneys.
Another factor to be considered is the community reputation and track record of each candidate. What has the candidate done, or not done, outside of their paid legal capacity? How has the candidate interfaced with individuals, government agencies and service organizations? Does the candidate have a record of attempting to game the system based on their profession? Has the candidate ever filed any frivolous retaliatory harassment lawsuits that ended up costing taxpayers money to defend until ultimately dismissed as having no merit?
Elizabeth Johnson has a long and exemplary record of positive community participation and support. In her legal practice she has provided pro bono (free) civil legal services to deserving indigent persons. She has, in this same capacity, negotiated favorable legal settlements between individuals and public and private agencies, which gets back to the issue of successful interface I raised above. Besides pro-bono legal service, throughout her adult life she has been an active volunteer in numerous environmental, educational, family and charitable organizations. This track record goes back to 1970, so she is not someone who recently decided to try to create a resume for political purposes.
Elizabeth has a broad based legal background, with the distinction of having already proven she can effectively function as a referee. With these legal qualifications and her lengthy record of community service, she has established that she is an extremely well-rounded individual with a very deep sense of commitment to her community.
She is the person we need on our local bench.