STANFORD -- An elite campus where law students dissect case studies in criminal justice has become ground zero in a real-life political exercise that could have far-reaching implications: a campaign to unseat the judge who spared Brock Turner from serving time in state prison for three felony sexual assault convictions.
A month after the lenient sentence set off a global firestorm, Stanford law professor Michele Dauber and others behind the recall effort are fighting to keep the issue alive and the donations flowing. There is a highway billboard, continuous messaging on social media and op-eds by Stanford professors to bolster the case against Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky.
But dissent is building as well. Late last month, dozens of 2016 Stanford Law School graduates -- about one-third of the class -- published an open letter urging Dauber to stop the recall, arguing it could make judges throughout California more fearful of showing mercy.
"After decades of mass incarceration driven by mandatory minimums and other punitive sentencing regimes," reads an open letter the graduates wrote to Dauber, "we believe that judicial leniency is already too scarce, even though we strongly disagree with how it was applied to Turner. And in a world where judges believe they are one unpopular sentencing decision away from an abrupt pink slip, it will only grow scarcer."
Earlier this year, a jury convicted the former Stanford swimmer of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party in 2015. Persky agreed with the probation department's recommendation that Turner should be spared prison because of "unusual circumstances," including his youth and lack of criminal history, and sentenced him to six months in jail and three years of probation.
Dauber says Persky, a former Stanford lacrosse team captain, went out of his way to favor a white athlete with Olympic aspirations, despite the emotional devastation Turner caused the victim.
"To us it seems clear this judge doesn't understand the harm of sexual assault," Dauber said. She says she "respectfully disagrees" with the law students' letter and that she doesn't see the recall as a threat to judicial independence.
The recall debate follows years of activism at Stanford, which, like many U.S. colleges, has been criticized in recent years for its handling of sexual assault. During the past academic year, students and professors, including Dauber, argued the university should use the same survey as other schools to determine the prevalence of sexual violence and other key information about the problem.
The Recall Persky campaign now lists dozens of endorsements from individuals and groups such as the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority, labor icon Dolores Huerta and actress Sharon Stone.
But Akiva Freidlin, one of the Stanford law graduates who drafted the letter to Dauber, calls the Persky campaign "righteous but wrong" -- even though he disagrees with Persky's decision.
"I thought to myself, 'There's a lot of clear research that shows that when we subject judges to electoral pressures, when they're subject to recall, sentences get harsher closer to election,' " he said.
The phenomenon is well documented. A 2015 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law analyzed 10 empirical studies; without exception, they found election pressures on judges were detrimental to defendants.
Backlashes against American judges seem to go in one direction, said Santa Clara County deputy public defender Sajid Khan, who posted a letter in support of Persky on Change.org that was signed by more than 100 local public defenders and attorneys.
"I haven't seen a popular, mass-type response to a sentence that was deemed to be too harsh," Khan said.
Dauber counters that judicial elections are embedded in the California Constitution -- and that recalls are a part of that process. Persky was up for re-election last month, but because he was unopposed, his name didn't appear on the ballot.
"All the recall is doing is triggering an election early," she said.
Moreover, Dauber argues, recall campaigns are so costly and tough to pull off that their threat to judicial independence has been overblown. The campaign committee has raised roughly one-tenth of the $1 million it needs for paid signature-gatherers, direct mail and other ads leading up to a November 2017 election, she said. However, it has received large fundraising commitments from other groups.
"I really do not think that the judges of California are sitting around, quaking in their boots, at the prospect of a judicial recall," she said.
Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at nearby Menlo College and a friend of Dauber's, is conflicted. The students at her small school often go to parties at Stanford, just 2 miles away, she said. The assault could have happened to one of them. But she also worries about broader implications in a system that incarcerates so many people.
Civil rights groups have expressed similar reservations about state legislation introduced in response to the Turner case to redefine rape and set harsher penalties for some sex offenses.
"I'm really torn, honestly," Michelson said. "I want Persky to know that was wrong, and at the same time I want judges to feel like they can do what's right -- not what's popular. Public opinion is often wrong when it comes to judicial decisions and people's rights."
Cindy Garcia, a 2016 Stanford law graduate who decided not to sign the letter, agrees with Dauber.
"We elect these judges anyway," she said. "It doesn't seem to bother me the way it seems to bother other people. It's part of the checks and balances."
Even if the recall does make it on the ballot, Garcia said, it doesn't mean Persky will automatically lose his job. Voters, she said, "can choose which way they want to go."
Article originally posted by The Mercury News
By Katy Murphy
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