Judicial selection in California

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Judicial selection in the states
Judicial selection in California
Seal of California.png
California Supreme Court
Method:   Gubernatorial appointment
Term:   12 years
California Courts of Appeal
Method:   Gubernatorial appointment
Term:   12 years
California Superior Courts
Method:   Nonpartisan election of judges
Term:   6 years

California uses two different systems for its selection of state court judges. The state's appellate judges are chosen by gubernatorial appointment followed by commission confirmation. Trial judges are elected by popular nonpartisan vote.[1]

Judges' terms begin on the Monday after January 1 following their election.[2]

Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal

See also: Gubernatorial appointment

The seven justices of the California Supreme Court and the 102 judges of the California Courts of Appeal are selected in an identical manner.

The state bar's Commission on Judicial Nominee Evaluation (the "Jenny Commission," made up of attorneys and public members) is required to perform extensive investigation on prospective appointees. The commission recommends candidates to the governor after examining their qualifications and fitness, ranking them as exceptionally well qualified, well qualified, qualified or not qualified.[1]

The governor is not bound to these recommendations, but he is held accountable to the Commission on Judicial Appointments, which is free to approve or veto the appointment by majority vote.[1]

If they wish to retain their seat, newly appointed judges are required to participate in yes-no retention elections occurring at the time of the next gubernatorial race. (Gubernatorial elections occur every four years). After their initial retention, judges will serve a full twelve-year term.[1][3]

The court uses the same process for selecting its chief justice. The governor, with commission approval, appoints a chief for a full twelve-year term.[1]


Qualifications are identical for judges of the appellate and trial courts. Candidates are required only to have ten years of experience as a law practitioner or as a judge of a court of record.[1]

Superior Courts

See also: Nonpartisan election

The 1535 judges of the California Superior Courts compete in nonpartisan races in even numbered years. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the June primary election, he or she is declared the winner; if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a runoff between the top two candidates is held during the November general election.[4][5][6]

If an incumbent judge is running unopposed in an election, his or her name does not appear on the ballot. The judge is automatically re-elected following the general election.[1]

The chief judge of any given superior court is selected by peer vote of the court's members. He or she serves in that capacity for one or two years, depending on the county.[1]


Qualifications are identical for judges of the appellate and trial courts. Candidates are required only to have ten years of experience as a law practitioner or as a judge of a court of record.[1]


In the event of a midterm vacancy, the governor appoints an interim judge to serve until the next general election.[1]

Commission on Judicial Appointments

The California Commission on Judicial Appointments is responsible for confirming appointments that the Governor of California makes to the California Supreme Court and the California Courts of Appeal.[1]

Three members sit on the commission. They are the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, the Attorney General of California and the senior presiding justice of the court of appeal of the appellate district to which a judge is being appointed. When a supreme court appointee is being considered, the third member of the commission is the state's senior presiding justice of the courts of appeal.[1]

The commission convenes when the governor nominates or appoints a person to fill an appellate court vacancy. One or more public hearings are held, during which the commission reviews the appointee's qualifications and decides to confirm or veto the appointment. No appellate appointment is final until the commission has filed its approval with the California Secretary of State.[7]


Judicial selection methods in California have undergone significant changes in the last 200 years. Below is a timeline noting the various stages, from the most recent to the earliest.

  • 1998: The judicial retention ballot is changed to no longer include the term length of the office in question or the name of the governor who initially appointed the justice. California judges campaigned for these changes because, since 1994 when the term lengths were first included on the ballot, judges seeking retention for longer terms received fewer votes.
  • 1986: Proposition 49 is approved by voters, prohibiting political parties from endorsing, supporting or opposing candidates in elections for nonpartisan offices. The provision was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case as not ripe for review. It was again declared unconstitutional by a federal district judge in 1996.
  • 1979: The State Bar of California's Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation is required by the California Legislature to review the backgrounds and qualifications of all prospective judges.
  • 1976: The Commission on Judicial Qualifications is renamed the Commission on Judicial Performance.[8]
  • 1960: The Commission on Judicial Qualifications is established by voter initiative.
  • 1934: The process of selecting appellate judges is changed by voters.
  • Appellate judges are required to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by a commission, later to stand for retention every twelve years.
  • Trial courts may adopt the same appointive system by majority vote of the county.
  • A measure on the same ballot calling for merit selection and retention of superior court judges in counties with populations greater than 1.5 million is rejected by voters.
  • 1926: The California Constitution is amended, providing for nonpartisan judicial elections.
  • 1911: The California Legislature establishes nonpartisan elections for judges.
  • 1904: The Court of Appeals is created.
  • 1879: The term length of supreme court justices is increased to twelve years.
  • 1862: The term length of supreme court justices is increased to ten years.
  • 1849: Judges of the state supreme court and district court are elected by popular vote to six-year terms.[9]

Selection of federal judges

United States district court judges, who are selected from each state, go through a different selection process than that of state judges.

The district courts are served by Article III federal judges who are appointed for life, during "good behavior." They are usually first recommended by senators (or members of the House, occasionally). The President of the United States of America nominates judges, who must then be confirmed by the United States Senate in accordance with Article III of the United States Constitution.[10]

Step ApprovedA Candidacy Proceeds DefeatedD Candidacy Halts
1. Recommendation made by Congress member to the President President nominates to Senate Judiciary Committee President declines nomination
2. Senate Judiciary Committee interviews candidate Sends candidate to Senate for confirmation Returns candidate to President, who may re-nominate to committee
3. Senate votes on candidate confirmation Candidate becomes federal judge Candidate does not receive judgeship

See also

External links