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Choosing Judges in California

Which judges are elected or appointed?

By Chris Micheli, June 3, 2019 6:15 am

Members of the California judiciary are selected in one of two ways. The first is for trial judges, those of the Superior Courts, and the second is for appellate court justices. Trial judges are elected by voters at an election (for six-year terms), which is a non-partisan race pursuant to the state constitution, and vacancies in the superior court are filled by appointment of the Governor.

For appellate court justices, those of the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court, they are appointed by the Governor and then evaluated and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. For the more than 1,500 Superior Court judges, their terms begin on the Monday after January 1 following their election. For appellate court justices, their terms begin when the Appointments Commission files its approval with the Secretary of State.

The seven Supreme Court justices and the 102 Courts of Appeal justices are first evaluated before a gubernatorial appointment. The Commission on Judicial Nominee Evaluation (aka the “Jenny Commission”) is required to investigate the prospective nominee’s background and qualifications for the judicial appointment.

There are four levels of ranking by the Commission and that ranking is provided to the Governor. Although these rankings do not bind the hands of the governor, the appellate court appointment is eventually decided by a majority vote of the Commission on Judicial Appointments.

When filling a vacancy, the justices must face a retention election at the next gubernatorial election. Thereafter, these justices must stand at a retention election every 12 years. The qualifications of both trial court judges and appellate court justices are the same, which is they must have ten years of experience as a law practitioner or as a judge of a court of record. Of course, they must be licensed to practice law in this state.

Chris Micheli

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He is also an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.

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