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Criminal Justice

Do You Want A More Diverse Judicial System In LA County? Here’s How You Can Get Involved

A view of a person's all black silhouette sitting on bench outside. In the background is the letteres saying Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, Compton Court, on the front of the courthouse.
The Los Angeles Superior Court in Compton, Calif.
(Frazer Harrison
Getty Images)
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Superior Court judges oversee trials across all of Los Angeles County, including child custody and divorce cases, contract disputes, probate and small claims.

In short, there’s a good chance you’ll see a trial court judge at some point in your life, so becoming more equipped and informed about how these elections work is smart.

New judges can be elected to the L.A. County Superior Court when a sitting judge’s term is up and someone is running against them.

Most of the candidates on this section of the ballot don’t throw money into campaigning because they’re wary of politicizing judgeships. So what happens?

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These elections end up with a notoriously low amount of information available, which makes it a challenge for you to figure out what bubble to fill in. Critics of this system say it makes it harder for new judges to join the ranks.

For many, the importance of who sits on the bench was underscored by the Supreme Court overruling Roe v. Wade last summer. To get to that point, conservatives opposed to abortion rights had worked for decades to get like-minded jurists appointed to powerful courts.

What we know about who is on the bench here now

  • In Los Angeles County, 60% of Superior Court judges are men, according to California Courts 2022 data.
  • While the population here is about half Latino, only 17% of our judges are.

In addition, we know most judges come from prosecutorial backgrounds.

Efforts to diversify judges

In the 2022 local elections a group of candidates — made up of women public defenders and a plaintiff’s attorney with a background in civil rights — ran together as “defenders of justice.” Only one member on that slate, Holly Hancock, won a seat.

Existing and new pipelines

Both state and L.A. Superior courts have their own pipeline programs to bring in judges from different backgrounds. These programs are strictly for the development of lawyers who hope to become a judge. (To run for judge, you just have to be authorized to practice law in California or have already served as a judge for 10 years in the state.)

Which means they aren't open to the broader public.

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Two progressive community organizations in L.A. County — L.A. Forward and La Defensa — are seeking to give more people the chance to learn about paths to the bench.

“[We want to] make sure that there are people who actually represent their community in these courthouses,” said Gabi Vazquez, the La Defensa deputy director.

A 'judicial leadership academy'

A group of more than two dozen people with different skin tones, smiling at the camera, standing outside on grass while huddled around a blue, white and orange sign that says LA Forward.
L.A. Forward organizers.
(Courtesy of Laura Coholan at La Defensa)

To do so the groups are starting a “judicial leadership academy,” with the aim to help people — whether they’re potential candidates or community members who want to get politically active — learn more about campaigning for elections and judicial ethics.

A goal of their effort is to create more political diversity among judges.

Vazquez, who's helping run the program, says the fact that far more judges worked as prosecutors means we have more people on the bench who are used to advocating for sentencing instead of reducing it.

“What we’ve seen is prosecutors and [district attorneys], turning [into] judges, who directly impact our communities. They are part of the problem in terms of over-incarceration,” Vazquez said.

“So it’s a problem now that can be altered by who we elect as judges, but also who learns what it takes.”

Trying to demystify judicial elections

Godfrey Plata, who ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for the California State Assembly, is the L.A. Forward deputy director and co-leader of the leadership academy. He wants the program to be a tool that will help average Angelenos demystify judicial elections.

“I, myself, just as a resident in L.A., have spent the hours Googling, trying to figure out who all these people are,” Plata said. “We don't know what ways people will want to apply this [program]. People may want to work behind the scenes, or maybe they're just more agitated than ever to be a really strong observer in election season.”

The program, which takes place over four sessions, will cover:

  • Judicial ethics
  • Campaigning
  • Filing for election
  • Fundraising and finance reporting
  • Messaging
  • Voter engagement
  • Endorsements

Vazquez and Plata say they'll also focus on effective strategies they've used in their current roles when it comes to door-to-door canvassing and phone banking.

How you can get involved

Anyone from underrepresented backgrounds is encouraged to apply, such as LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and people of color.

The deadline is the end of June 5. You can learn more about the judicial academy and apply here.

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