Judicial appointments in California are theoretically the duty of the governor or an electoral body. But they’re really often determined by selection groups that tend to put the same kinds of people on the bench.
That might explain why San Mateo County’s bench has long looked one-dimensional. For years, the county only employed a single Asian judge — Elizabeth Lee. And almost all of the county’s judges had come up as prosecutors or civil litigators. None were former public defenders.
But that changed in late 2010, when Judge Leland Davis III and Judge Donald Ayoob, both career public defenders, were appointed to serve in San Mateo County Superior Court on the same day. Davis is only second black judge currently serving in the county, and Ayoob is the only Arab-American.
San Mateo County’s judicial makeover parallels a larger evolution in California’s courts, which began around the time Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office. The three governors before him — George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis — all had a penchant for moving former prosecutors up the ranks, Ayoob recalled. Defender appointments came to a virtual standstill, he said.
Ayoob said a judge’s résumé won’t necessarily determine his or her behavior in the courtroom, but it’s still important to have what he calls “a balance of litigation experience.”
“There’s less potential for group-think,” he said. “Because, you know, balance begets more balance.”
Why the tide shifted when Schwarzenegger took the reins is open for conjecture. Some legal observers say that the Republican was actually more socially liberal than he let on. Others speculate that his wife, Maria Shriver, actually had a fair amount of sway over judicial selections.
Still others attribute the shift to former San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown, a cousin of Gov. Jerry Brown, who made a point of picking a diverse group of apprentices for his office — several of whom were subsequently named to judicial posts. Davis came up under his tutelage, as did two other black judges, three Asian judges, two lesbians judges and one gay male judge.
Having that element of diversity is vital, said San Francisco Superior Court Judge Bruce Chan — himself a Jeff Brown alumnus — when one considers the range of people who use California’s courts every day.
“[We] have a commitment to representing underrepresented communities,” he said, adding that it’s critical that at least a few people at the bench understand the issues facing poor people who get caught up in the justice system.
“If all your judges come from large insurance defense firms, they’ll never have seen those issues up close,” Chan said. He likes to joke that Jeff Brown is nourishing California’s court system, even as his cousin Jerry eviscerates it through budget cuts.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Leland Davis III is the only black judge in San Mateo County. In fact, he is joined by Raymond Swope, who was appointed in 2009.