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SF's Superior Court Judicial Showdown

It's rare for sitting judges to be challenged for re-election. Here's why.

A historic election

CA superior court judges are rarely challenged for re-election. It's why we hardly ever see judicial candidates on the ballot. They often run unopposed.

This year, however, a slate of four attorneys from the SF Public Defenders Office are challenging four incumbent judges who are up for re-election.

Seat #4

: Judge Andrew Cheng vs. Phoenix Streets

Seat #7

: Judge Curtis Karnow vs. Maria Evangelista

Seat #9

: Judge Cynthia Lee vs. Kwixuan Maloof vs. Elizabeth Zareh (an independent candidate)

Seat #11

: Judge Jeff Ross vs. Niki Solis

Compared to previous judicial elections, this one is pretty epic.

Why are they running?

By running, the challengers are breaking longstanding judicial norms. Judges are appointed by the Governor whenever a vacancy opens up, and their seats are rarely contested during re-election. Why? Many members in the judicial and political community claim that campaigning would threaten the independent judiciary and introduce political bias into their rulings.

The challengers argue that judicial seats are already inherently political. , and it's also perfectly legal to run for judge. The point of judicial elections is to keep judges accountable. Judicial seats are typically challenged when judges make biased, unlawful, or unpopular rulings. (They can also be recalled. A high-profile example of this is Judge Aaron Persky's recall based on his ruling on the Stanford rape case of Brock Turner.) It's a tension between accountability and independence.

The slate of Public Defenders are campaigning because they ultimately believe the judicial system is biased against people of color. They argue that the current judges, all of whom were appointed by Republican Governors (though they're all registered Democrats), will continue to perpetuate the broken status quo.

What does a judge do?

CA Superior Court judges handle all criminal and civil cases: everything from tenant disputes, petty theft to homicides.

In addition to being impartial, Superior Court judges need to comply with CA’s judicial code of ethics and be well-versed in the legal system, or be competent enough to master it. Every year or two they can be assigned to a different department, ranging from family law to criminal court, which means they often have to learn on the job. To put it in perspective, a civil court judge can hear up to 50 to 100 cases in a single morning.

What Others Think

What people are saying about SF's superior court election

Supporting the incumbents

Judge Andrew Cheng, Judge Curtis Karnow, Judge Cynthia Lee, and Judge Jeff Ross exemplify our community’s values and the diversity of opinion -- and are committed to justice for all. I’m proud to join my colleagues and dozen more from San Francisco and across our great state of California in fully supporting their re-elections.
Nancy Pelosi, US Congresswoman
All of these judges have demonstrated their commitment to serving the people of San Francisco through the fair and impartial administration of justice. As conservative interests throughout the country try to politicize our judiciary, we can take a stand in San Francisco by voting to retain these supremely qualified judges.
Kamala Harris, US Senator
We stand firmly behind Judges Andrew Y.S. Cheng, Curtis E.A. Karnow, Cynthia Ming-mei Lee, and Jeffrey S. Ross. They are exceptional members of the state judiciary and as judges on the San Francisco bench have presided over every case with fairness, impartiality and consideration of every person that comes before them.
Teri Jackson, presiding SF Superior Court judge, and Garrett Wong, assistant presiding judge

Supporting the challengers

Regardless of the election outcome, these four challengers have already won. They’ve exposed their judicial critics as hypocrites, and shed light on the improper efforts by highly-placed members of our judiciary to erect obstacles blocking the exercise of constitutional rights.
Matt Gonzalez, Chief Attorney of SF Public Defenders Office
Four incredible public defenders are running for Superior Court Judge against incumbents appointed by a Republican governor. This is what organized movement electoral politics looks like.
Hillary Ronen, District 9 SF Supervisor
Like our own volunteer counselors and attorneys, public defenders are the unsung heroes of San Francisco’s judicial system. They fight every day for folks on the brink of losing everything, often due to false accusations level against them by greedy landlords with pockets deep enough to wreck havoc on anybody in their way.
SF Tenants Union
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