Before last weekend’s act of terror in Orlando, Northern California had the dubious distinction as America’s epicenter for headline-grabbing infamy – a sexual assault case involving a Stanford University athlete that raised all sorts of unsettling questions as to privilege, victimhood and tilted scales of justice.
Rest assured, the matter is far from settled.
The Legislature is pondering ways to redefine “rape” so that future similar cases won’t result in the same six-month sentence handed down to Brock Turner for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman he’d earlier met at a fraternity party.
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Meanwhile, three prominent Democratic political consultants have signed on to the effort to recall Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, who gave Turner a lighter sentence than prosecutors had asked, sparking national outrage.
Writing as I am from the Stanford campus, I’ve had a front-row seat to this drama. However, I don’t have a personal stake in it. I don’t know the victim or the accused, the judge or the Stanford law professor who initiated the recall effort.
But this much I do know:
First, given the hideous nature of this crime and the young man’s lack of outward remorse, there’s every reason to be outraged by the lighter-than-expected sentence. But does that mean the judge is incompetent or has abused his legal discretion?
Second, tempting though it is to vent that outrage through a recall, maybe it’s wise to pause for a moment and consider the bigger picture. Let’s assume the recall campaign not only succeeds at putting Persky up for a vote next year, but the good people of Santa Clara County give him the heave-ho. All that’s required is 58,634 signatures from registered county voters. Hillary Clinton received nearly three times as many votes in the county last week.
But what comes after that?
Will California judges start factoring public backlash, the stigma of online petitioning and a fear of political reprisal into their decisions?
Is there a similar outcry if a judge goes to the opposite extreme – say, handing down a maximum sentence to a battered woman defending herself against an abusive spouse?
Only a few days into 2016, an effort to recall an Orange County Superior Court judge for supposedly going easy on a child molester – he gave the accused 10 years for abusing a three-year-old girl instead of the 25-to-life prosecutors sought – failed to gather the 90,829 signatures necessary.
Interestingly, this legal controversy occurs as California approaches the 30th anniversary of the voter ouster of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and two of her colleagues.
To this day, those who remember that campaign fall into one of two camps. There are those who believe she had it coming (Bird’s judicial temperament came into question as she voted more than 60 consecutive times against the death penalty). Others will always dismiss it as a plot to give a Republican governor a chance to stack the high court.
California deserves something more than a Perksy recall – a thought-provoking examination (and legislative intervention if need be) into life on college campuses, alcohol and the hookup culture, how the younger generation interacts and whether state laws adequately protect victims of sex crimes.
The recall may feel justifiable. But much like the ruling that triggered the backlash, it’s misguided justice.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.