The campaign to recall a judge who issued what many considered a light sentence to a former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault cleared its first hurdle Thursday.
Recall organizers, led by Stanford law Professor Michele Dauber, filed a petition and nearly 100,000 signatures with the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters in San Jose to place a measure on the June ballot to recall Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky.
If successful, it would be the first recall of a California judge in 87 years.
In June 2016, Persky sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman by a dumpster outside of a fraternity party on the college campus, resulting in a national outcry that Turner received special treatment. Prosecutors had argued that Turner should spend six years in state prison, but Persky gave him six months in county jail. He ended up being released in three.
“We’ve been out literally every day, rain or shine, walking precincts for every single community from Stanford to Gilroy, talking to voters about sexual assault and the need to make sure that victims of sexual assault and especially victims from marginalized communities are treated fairly,” Dauber told The Chronicle.
At a news conference Thursday morning, Dauber listed a series of cases in which she believed Persky’s handling of sexual assault cases had been too lenient, including a 2011 civil trial on the alleged gang rape of a 17-year-old high school girl by members of the De Anza Community College baseball team. Persky allowed defendants to show photos of the victim wearing a revealing outfit to the jury.
“The voters of our county are saying loud and clear that they will hold Judge Persky accountable for his pattern of bias in favor of athletes and other privileged offenders who commit sex crimes and violence against women,” Dauber said.
After serving half of his sentence, Turner was required to register as a sex offender after moving back home with his family in Ohio. He recently appealed his conviction, arguing that he didn’t receive a fair trial.
To qualify for June’s election, the Persky recall campaign was required to turn in 58,634 valid signatures by Feb. 2. Organizers submitted a petition with 94,518 signatures that filled 11 boxes outside of the Registrar of Voters office, which now has 30 days to verify them.
“We are very confident that we are going to have thousands more than we need to qualify,” Dauber said.
The number of signatures needed to hold a recall for a judge is not based on the percentage of registered voters. Rather, it relies on 20 percent of signatures to come from people who voted in the previous judicial election, according to the Registrar of Voters.
Persky has tried several times to block the recall effort. In August 2017, his attorneys filed a successful motion to halt the campaign’s signature gathering. The temporary restraining order prevented the collection of signatures for a 12-day period.
Despite the fact that Persky was elected by Santa Clara County voters, his attorneys have argued that the judge is a state official and that the procedure for removing him should be overseen by the secretary of state, not the county Registrar of Voters.
Elizabeth Pipkin, an attorney for Persky, wrote in an email that she believes the recall campaign has not complied with the California Constitution.
“In law and in practice, judges are state officers,” Pipkin said. “Therefore, they deserve the same protections as all California state officers who are subject to recall.”
Persky based Turner’s jail sentence on a recommendation from the county probation department. The judge noted that prison would have “a severe impact” on the former Stanford swimmer.
The petition to place the recall on the ballot is only the first step in the campaign to push out Persky, Dauber said. If the recall is placed on the ballot, voters also will be asked to select a candidate to fill Persky’s seat on the bench. Cindy Hendrickson, an assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County, is the only candidate to date who has filed papers.
On Thursday, Dauber framed the recall effort in historical context by describing the first successful recall effort in California history.
“In 1913, the women’s clubs of San Francisco, much like we have done here, banded together to recall a judge named Charles Weller for lenient decisions on sexual assault,” she said.
Dauber also noted the national momentum of the current #MeToo movement.
“Women are standing up and refusing to accept the normalization of harassment and abuse by privileged men, and the movement runs all the way from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to media to politics to the legal profession,” Dauber said, expressing support for Hendrickson.
Persky’s ruling — along with the publication of a gut-wrenching letter the victim read in court during Turner’s sentencing hearing — prompted former Vice President Joe Biden to write an open letter to the victim noting that she is a “warrior” who has been failed by many people and institutions.
Originally posted in SF Gate by Sarah Ravani and Sophie Haigney. Read it here.