County Scoop: January 2020
By Annrae Angel
How did United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “the notorious RBG,” attain superstar status, become the subject of multiple biopics and gain a viral Internet following at the age of 86? Is it just because she is one impressive individual? Or is it because Americans are coming to realize how much judges matter? I would say, both. The high-profile confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh further underscored the gravity and power of the judiciary at the national level, albeit in a different way.
Local county judges in our California superior courts, in contrast, rarely get the careful attention they deserve. When you see a judge election on the ballot, what do you feel? Guilt? Anxiety? Confusion? As it turns out, many voters just skip the question, or guess. Campaigns for judges are never loud and flashy, and many judge candidates run unopposed. But county superior court judges matter, too.
Whether we are victims of a theft, fighting a traffic ticket, negotiating bankruptcy, settling a divorce, or worse, superior court judges directly touch our lives. Whether we vote or not, we are the people responsible for who becomes a judge. Judges matter. They matter in the lives of people we don’t know, and then one day they matter in the lives of people we know.
We need to be certain we can trust our judges. We need the system to be fair, to reflect our community values. Judges need to speak to us in a way that helps us to respect the law. But we have trouble knowing much about these people, for good reason. Judges are not supposed to be political, but we vote for them, like we vote for district attorneys, senators and county supervisors. As a result, the legal system can feel confusing and obscure. This needs to change.
Over my three-decades in civil, family, and criminal law, I have argued thousands of cases in superior courts in front of many judges. I have learned from these judges and seen a range of solutions to problems that confront communities every day. A good judge listens carefully, treats everyone fairly, compassionately and with dignity, and decides each case ethically. These are values that cannot be taken for granted.
The other day, I was sitting in the courtroom, listening to the story of a young man who made a serious mistake when he was 16 years old. He stole a bicycle from a neighbors’ garage. The judge in that case treated the offender firmly, but with compassion and warmth. He held the youth responsible for his actions and provided a clear path forward for him to learn from his mistake and compensate the victim. He connected the young man with help under strict oversight. That’s the kind of judge we need in Santa Cruz, a judge who cares about outcomes.
As a long-time resident of Santa Cruz County, where I have raised two children while working, I have seen the many ways judges matter. In Santa Cruz County, we can protect our community from violent and other crimes by improving how we manage young offenders in the courts, and how we address drug and mental health offenses. We need to take advantage of the best practices from around the state, to bring drug and mental health services into the courtrooms, to improve the juvenile justice system, and to short-circuit the cycle of re-offense. We need to take conscious action to select our judges.
This coming March, a judge race will be on the ballot. Don’t skip it or guess, study it and be an informed voter. Judges matter. Early voting starts February 3.
Annrae Angel is running for Santa Cruz Superior Court judge. To hear judicial candidates present their opinions before the March 3 election, check meetings at www.dwscc.org