On Aug. 3, 2022, I was sworn in as an Associate Justice for the Second District Court of Appeal, which handles appeals from trial courts in Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles counties. I swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” just like I did when I became a trial judge. Because of the timing of my elevation from Judge to Justice, I must be retained by you, the voter, in next month’s general election. Unlike federal judges nominated by the President of the United States, California appellate justices do not receive life-long appointments.
Because my predecessor’s term of office expires in January, I must receive a majority of votes cast next month to be retained by the voters and continue serving as an appellate justice. I am one of twelve justices who will appear on the ballot: Justices Judith Ashmann-Gerst, Lamar Baker, Hernaldo Baltodano, Audrey Collins, Brian Currey, Elizabeth Grimes, Luis Lavin, Laurence Rubin, John Segal, Maria Stratton, Frances Rothschild and John Wiley. We respectfully ask for your vote.
How does one become an appellate justice? A candidate must have practiced law for at least 10 years, apply, and go through a non-partisan and rigorous vetting process that can take months or years. The lengthy application asks about one’s legal experience and personal background, including significant cases handled as an attorney or judge. The governor’s office forwards the applications of promising candidates to one of eight regional Judicial Selection Advisory Committees (JSAC) for vetting. JSAC members consist of diverse judges and lawyers whose names are public. JSAC provides feedback about a candidate’s work ethic, intellectual ability, collegiality, temperament and judicial demeanor. After completing its assessment, JSAC prepares a report for the governor’s office and gives the candidate a rating: “Not Qualified”; “Qualified”; “Well-Qualified”; or “Exceptionally Well-Qualified.” The ratings are kept confidential, even from the candidates.
If one is fortunate to advance to the next phase, the governor’s office submits the application to the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE), comprised of 26 non-partisan public members and lawyers. The candidate is assigned three JNE investigators. In my experience, my JNE investigators contacted 75 references and sent confidential questionnaires to hundreds of judges and lawyers across California to evaluate my character, reputation, common sense, knowledge, legal skills, professional experience, objectivity, ethics, ability to make difficult decisions, work ethic, temperament and integrity. I also sat for a lengthy interview where I was asked detailed questions about my qualifications. After JNE meets and completes its investigation and evaluation, JNE forwards a confidential evaluation to the governor with the same rating system used by JSAC. The rating is again kept confidential. After receiving JNE’s report, the governor’s office may interview the candidate. I was privileged to have the opportunity to interview with the governor’s judicial appointments secretary and staff.
If the governor ultimately concludes the candidate is qualified for appointment, he or she may nominate the candidate to become an appellate justice. I was nominated on June 3, 2022. My qualifications were reviewed by the Chief Justice of California, the Attorney General of California, and a senior presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal, sitting as the Commission on Judicial Appointments. After listening to public comment in a publicly noticed hearing, the commission found I was qualified to serve and unanimously confirmed my nomination. I immediately took the oath of office and have been diligently discharging my duties ever since.
As an appellate justice, my professional and personal conduct is subject to review by the non-partisan California Commission on Judicial Performance. All justices must comply with the California Code of Judicial Conduct, which contains standards for the ethical conduct of judges, and requires us “to be faithful to the law regardless of partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism . . . ” A justice who violates any of these standards may be removed from office, making the person no longer eligible for election by the voters.
Our robust merit-based selection and retention election system, and judicial standards of conduct, are designed to foster judges’ independence from improper external pressures. Indeed, the framers of our Constitution imagined an independent and impartial judiciary as one of the pillars of our democracy. We, as members of the judiciary, serve as a co-equal branch of government to balance the powers of the executive and legislative branches. We resolve public and private disputes based upon the law and facts, not on politics or public opinion.
I am deeply honored and privileged to take part in our democracy, and I humbly ask that you please vote to retain my colleagues and me in next month’s election.
Hernaldo J. Baltodano is an associate justice with the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division 6. He is based in Ventura.