October 28, 2010

Chief Justice nominee Tani Cantil-Sakauye may have to overcome an extra hurdle in Tuesday’s vote

As we mentioned in this post, Tuesday’s election will be a particularly important one for the California Supreme Court. Chief Justice nominee Tani Cantil-Sakauye must be confirmed by the voters in order for her to take over from current Chief Justice Ronald M. George on January 2. But will they vote to confirm her? According to an October 21 article in the Daily Journal [subscription required] by staff writer Laura Ernde, there may be some doubt. Ernde reports that Joan Dempsey Klein, senior presiding justice of the Court of Appeal and a member of the Commission on Judicial Appointments that approved Cantil-Sakauye’s nomination back in August, is a bit concerned. According to Ernde, Klein thinks “Cantil-Sakauye’s unusual sounding name could be a detriment to her at the polls.” Klein therefore “recently called Cantil-Sakauye to express her concern and encourage her to step up her campaign, which has been quiet so far.”

The article quotes Court-watcher Gerald Uelmen as saying there is some basis for Klein’s concern, since judges with ethnic-sounding names tend to do somewhat less well at the polls. Voters tend to know little about California’s courts and judges, so name perception can be a key factor when they cast their votes. Ernde highlights the case of former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, who was voted off the bench after 20 years of service and replaced by Lynn Olson, a bagel shop owner who hadn’t practiced law in more than a decade. Many assume that, despite her experience and excellent qualifications, Janavs lost due to her ethnic-sounding name.

Also up for re-election on Tuesday are Associate Justices Ming W. Chin and Carlos R. Moreno. The article points out that these justices, too, have names that could cause problems at the ballot box.

Here’s hoping that lawyers familiar with the Court do their best to get the word out, especially to their non-lawyer family and friends, about information that will help voters make decisions that are based on something more meaningful than a judge’s name.

UPDATE: On November 2, 2010, the voters approved Tani Cantil-Sakauye as the next Chief Justice of California. According to the Secretary of State’s website, 66.8 percent of the votes were in her favor. Justices Ming Chin and Carlos Moreno received 65.2 percent and 67.5 percent “yes” votes, respectively.

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