Voters on Tuesday ousted Judge Aaron Persky, whose sentencing in a sexual assault case drew so much outrage that it turned his recall effort into what’s being called the highest-profile political campaign in Santa Clara County history.
With all precincts reporting Wednesday, nearly 60 percent of ballots favored his recall, making him the first judge in 86 years to lose his job by popular vote. Of the two women running to replace him, voters picked Assistant District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson.
The recall campaign cast Persky as the face of rape culture and his recall as an indictment on a society that normalizes or diminishes violence against women. Dauber and her allies targeted Persky over what they saw as his lenient treatment of ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who served half of his six-month jail term for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus.
Upon seeing the early election results Tuesday, Michele Dauber—the Stanford professor who led the recall campaign—read a part of a statement from Turner’s victim, known publicly as Emily Doe, which went viral in the wake of the 2016 sentencing.
“When people doubt you or dismiss you, we are with you,” she told a crush of TV cameras and reporters. “We fought every day for you, so never stop fighting. We believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, ‘Lighthouses don’t go running around an island looking for boats to save, they just stand there shining.’ And although we can't save every boat, we hope that by winning this election day, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served.”
To Persky’s defenders, however, the recall posed a threat to judicial discretion. A broad swath of Silicon Valley’s legal community said it also ran the risk of harming less privileged defendants by pressuring judges to impose harsher sentences.
“Winning is never as important as doing the right thing,” retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, one of the most prominent voices against the recall, lamented on Facebook Wednesday. “While this is a sad day for the California judiciary and for Californians, we are heartened by the thousands of voters in Santa Clara County who voted against the recall of Judge Persky. They understand that the independence of our judiciary is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. The recall campaign was based on emotion and dishonesty. Our campaign was based on critical thinking and the facts.”
Sajid Khan, a South Bay public defender and another outspoken critic of the recall, echoed Cordell’s sentiment. In a blog post, he said he is “deeply concerned that this recall will cause judges to ignore the humanity of the criminally accused and impose more harsh, punitive, carceral sentences, thereby fueling mass incarceration.”
Recall proponents spent their election night win at a private home, away from the prying eyes of reporters. In addition to her remarks at the Tuesday night news conference, Dauber posted a triumphant tweet from the watch party.
— Michele Dauber (@mldauber) June 6, 2018
Attendees tell Fly that the mood at Persky’s election night gathering, another no-reporters-allowed affair, was considerably more somber. More than one person who went compared it to a funeral. Another to a support group.
But Persky’s kids were there, and a few of his supporters brought theirs, too, which livened things up a bit and made it feel more like a family gathering. In addition to Cordell, attorney James McManis showed up. As did the county’s presiding judge, Hon. Patricia Lucas.
Persky reportedly tried to cheer everyone up by jokingly awarding plastic dollar-store medals as consolation prizes for winding up on the losing end of the fight.
“He was making it bearable enough for the rest of us to laugh,” attorney Amy Carlson says. “But that kind of made it more heartbreaking.”
Hendrickson, who will serve the remaining four years of Persky’s term, hosted a far more celebratory private get-together at her own home with friends, family and supporters.
“My folks just flew in from Virginia and they arrived just in time to see something on the news that was 39 percent reporting,” Hendrickson said of early election results Tuesday night that put her in the lead.
Hendrickson, who supported the recall, declined to elaborate on her position. Instead, she emphasized how proud she felt about the campaigns that she and her anti-recall opponent Angela Storey ran.
Persky will remain on the bench until the county authorizes a final vote county next month. But even though Hendrickson has yet to officially replace him, she’s already under intense scrutiny from reformers and activists who worry that her background as a prosecutor will make her err on the side of retributive rather than restorative justice.
And even with four years left of a six-year term, Fly’s told that some folks are plotting a challenge should the newly minted judge seek re-election.