SAN JOSE — The campaign to recall Judge Aaron Persky for giving a former Stanford athlete convicted of sexual assault a relatively lenient sentence of six months in jail has collected nearly 95,000 signatures — far more than required — recall organizers said Thursday.
The mood was triumphant but not complacent as a group of recall supporters gathered in San Jose at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters to turn in 11 boxes of signed petitions.
“Now we’re going to be out there talking to voters, passing out literature and walking precincts,” said Stanford Law School Professor Michele Dauber, the leader of the recall campaign, outside the registrar’s office.
If Persky, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, is recalled, it would be the first time a California judge has been ousted in a recall election in 85 years. In 1986, three state Supreme Court justices were removed from office by voters, but it was during a general election, not a recall.
Persky’s supporters argue that recalling the judge could put a chill on judicial independence.
The recall campaign wrapped up its four-month drive in late December, about five weeks before the Feb. 2 deadline. Volunteers and paid signature gatherers fanned out across the county, including at local farmers markets and events like San Jose’s Christmas in the Park.
Recall supporters need at least 58,634 valid signatures from Santa Clara County voters to qualify for the June 5 election, and elections officials have until early March to verify the signatures. But Eric Kurhi, a spokesman for the Registrar of Voters, said the office may have the results of the random-sample verification as early as Jan. 26.
Persky sparked national outrage 19 months ago after he gave former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner the six-month county jail sentence for sexually assaulting an intoxicated, unconscious woman two years ago outside a campus frat party. Turner, who ended up serving three months because of a state law aimed at reducing jail overcrowding, has returned to his hometown in Ohio. Under California law, he also is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Persky’s supporters include dozens of law school professors in California, including UC Berkeley’s Erwin Chemerinsky and Santa Clara University’s Gerald Uelmen. The professors, including 30 who teach at Stanford, note the sentence was lawful and dovetailed with a probation officer’s recommendation.
Persky’s ouster, they have argued, would cause great harm because judges may feel pressured into making decisions based on public opinion. Other groups, including the California Judges Association, have issued similar statements expressing concern about judicial independence.
Persky has not commented to reporters since the controversy, pointing to state rules that limit what judges can say during a political campaign.
The petition drive was almost certainly aided by the current climate of heightened concern that victims of sexual assault have not been treated seriously — a sentiment widely shared after allegations surfaced in October about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Such allegations have led to resignations and firings by other high-profile figures, including actor Kevin Spacey and former Michigan Rep. John Conyers.
“We’re in uncharted territory here, but the recall has two forces in its favor: the perception that the judge is soft on crime and the #MeToo movement and push by women for equality,” said Garrick Percival, a political science professor at San Jose State.
But Meaghan Ybos, a rape survivor and the executive director of People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws, wrote in a recent essay that those outraged “over the supposedly lenient sentence” don’t understand “the consequences of Turner’s conviction, which includes lifetime registration as a sex offender.”
“I also believe that the energy and vitriol directed at Judge Persky should have been used instead to hold police departments accountable for properly investigating rape,” Ybos added.
Persky has raised $381,742, nearly two-thirds of which was in free legal services from the San Jose law firm of McManis Faulkner and other non-monetary contributions. Recall backers have raised more than $700,000, less than 2 percent of which was in non-monetary contributions. But about half of that went to pay signature gatherers.
If the recall qualifies for the June election, the question of who will replace the judge would appear on the same ballot. So far, only one person — Assistant District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson — has announced her candidacy.
Once the county Board of Supervisors officially puts the matter on the ballot — most likely in early March — judicial candidates will have until March 22 to file.
It’s not altogether clear sailing for the campaign, even if the signatures are certified. Persky has asked a state appellate court to block the election. His lawyers contend that because Superior Court judges like Persky are technically state officers, California’s secretary of state — not the county registrar — should be overseeing the petition drive. The 6th District Court of Appeal, however, refused his request to do so on an emergency basis — a sign the justices may not overturn a lower court decision that allowed it to proceed under the auspices of the registrar.
Only four judges have been recalled in California history, one in San Francisco in 1913 and three on the same ballot in Los Angeles in 1932. The ballots included the simultaneous election of successors.
The sentence and the victim’s powerfully written statement prompted new state laws in California and touched off the recall movement, which forced Persky to stop hearing criminal cases.
Later this month, Persky will begin an assignment he can do from home, out of the direct public eye. He’ll be the “night judge,” meaning he’ll be on call 15 hours a day, five days a week, from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. to respond to a variety of requests and emergency restraining orders.
The petition drive was halted in August for 12 days by retired Orange County Judge Marjorie Laird, who granted Persky’s request for a temporary restraining order. But retired San Francisco Judge Kay Tsenin later lifted it.
Persky had contended in his request for a stay that a lower court judge who allowed the recall signature-gathering effort to proceed in August “committed legal error.” But Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office has sided with recall supporters who say that the county registrar should oversee the election — not the Secretary of State’s Office.
If Persky prevails, recall proponents will be forced to refile their petitions with the state — which would delay the recall until November and increase election costs by more than $5 million.
Originally posted in The Mercury News by Tracey Kaplan. Read it here.