Judicial Selection: How California Chooses Its Judges and Justices
The California court system consists of the local superior courts in each of California’s 58 counties, the 6 districts of the Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. Following is a summary of how judges and justices get to their positions on these courts.
SUPERIOR COURT JUDGES
Superior court judges serve six-year terms and are elected by county voters on a nonpartisan ballot at a general election during even-numbered years. Vacancies occurring during those terms—due to retirements, deaths, or other departures—are filled through appointment by the Governor.
A superior court judge must have been an attorney admitted to practice law in California or served as a judge in California for at least 10 years immediately preceding election or appointment. The vast majority of superior court judges initially reach the bench via gubernatorial appointment. The State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation investigates and evaluates prospective nominees’ background and qualifications.
SUPREME COURT AND COURT OF APPEAL JUSTICES
When California Supreme Court and Court of Appeal justices step down at the end of their 12-year terms, the Governor nominates individuals to replace them. These nominees must have been an attorney admitted to practice law in California or served as a judge in California for at least 10 years immediately preceding selection. Unlike completed terms filled through nominations, judicial vacancies occurring during those terms—due to retirements, deaths, or other departures—are filled through appointments by the governor.
New justices either nominated or appointed by the governor must be confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, which consists of the chief justice, the attorney general, and a presiding justice of the courts of appeal. Like appointments of judges to the superior courts, the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation investigates and evaluates prospective justices’ backgrounds and qualifications.
Once confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, nominated justices appear on the ballot and must obtain voter approval to replace the justices stepping down at the end of their 12-year terms. With voter approval, elected justices’ terms begin the Monday after January 1 following the election.
Newly appointed justices filling judicial vacancies must stand for retention in the next gubernatorial election after their appointments. With voter approval, these justices then serve the remainder of the 12-year terms to which they were appointed, or, begin new 12-year terms, if the terms to which they were appointed are expiring the January 1 immediately after that November gubernatorial election.
Removal from the Bench
The California Commission on Judicial Performance reviews the professional and personal conduct of judges and justices. All judges and justices must comply with the California Code of Judicial Conduct, which contains standards for ethical conduct. Judges or justices that violate any of those standards may be removed from office, making them no longer eligible for election by the voters.