Why Signing A Change.Org Petition Is Not Enough To Remove The Stanford Judge

Photo: Santa Clara County’s Sheriff’s Department.
The California judge in the Stanford rape case will serve another judicial term.

As USA Today reported, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky's election was canceled on Tuesday due to the fact that he went unchallenged on the ballot, giving him automatic re-election to a six-year term.

Despite earning this most recent term, Persky faces criticism for his lenient sentencing of former Stanford student Brock Turner, who in March was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault. Earlier this month, Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail out of a possible 14 years citing that he feared a prison sentence would have a "severe impact" on the 20-year-old.

Persky's gentle sentence has led some to call for his resignation. On Tuesday, a Change.org petition calling for Judge Persky's removal had over 477, 000 signatures. But to recall a judge in California, you need more than signatures on a Change.org petition, you need to file an official recall petition.

Stanford University Law Professor Michele Dauber has started a formal recall website, which on Tuesday had raised more than $20,000 of its $100,000 goal. She said a hand-written petition drive will begin soon aimed at collecting the estimated 70,000 signatures needed to put Persky's recall on the ballot.

Unfortunately, the recall will not make it on the November election ballot due to a California law, which requires Dauber to wait 90 days after Persky's new term of office begins before starting the recall effort. Persky's term starts in January and Dauber expects to begin gathering signatures in early April.

"We will need to collect the signatures of at least 20% of the votes cast in the upcoming November 2016 election in Santa Clara County," Dauber wrote on the recall website, "and we will have 160 days to do so once we start."

After collecting the designated number of signatures needed, they would then qualify for a recall election. But, to have Judge Persky officially taken out of office, they would still need to win this recall election, which wouldn't likely happen until 2017, the earliest.

Dauber, who wrote in a letter to the court that Turner should have received a minimum of two to three years of incarceration under California statutes, told USA Today Persky's "ruling was dangerous and wrongheaded. We need to replace him with someone who understands violence against women."

But Jessica Levinson, an expert on election law and professor at Loyola Law School, told Refinery29 that recalling judges based on rulings we don't like can be a slippery slope.

"All of these procedures we want to use when we don't agree with the decision, but when we do agree, we also don't want judges to be recalled," Levinson said. "The extreme example is the judge who ruled against segregation in the segregated South. You don't want it to be that easy to recall a judge in those circumstances."

Levinson said what judges do is apply the facts to the law, which sometimes that gets them to unpopular results. But, this doesn't make those decisions unlawful. "There's no allegations [Persky] engaged in misconduct," Levinson said, noting that's what recall votes should be used for.

This is similar to the sentiment Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen shared with San Jose's Mercury News when commenting on Persky's ruling. "While I strongly disagree with the sentence that Judge Persky issued in the Brock Turner case," Rosen said. "I do not believe he should be removed from his judgeship."

Levinson told Refinery29 that there is no doubt a terrible crime was committed and the public's response has been a rational one. She also believes six months is too little and that Turner's father's letter was "absurd." But she does warn that "when emotions do run high is when we need to be most careful about systemic changes."

The reason many feel so passionate about this case stems from the victim's letter, which touched on the failure within the system to help those who have been sexually assaulted. To Levinson, this is the more important issue about the case that goes beyond a judge's light ruling.

"I think really what we're upset about is not just this case, but the fact that sexual assault on campus happens way, way, way too often and we don't have any organized way of dealing with it," Levinson said. "We need to think about insuring that the deck is not stacked against the victims of sexual assault."

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