Setting it straight: A headline on Thursday's Page A3 incorrectly stated that proponents of a South Dakota initiative on ousting judges hope to launch the measure next in California. They are looking next to Nevada and hope eventually to reach California.
An initiative providing for the ouster and criminal indictment of judges who make bad decisions appears headed for a test vote in South Dakota next year and, if it succeeds there, will be attempted in other states, sponsors of the measure said this week.
The Southern California-based sponsors of the Judicial Accountability Initiative Law (JAIL) have taken aim at what they call "black-collar crime" across the country. They already have their sights set on the 2006 ballot in Nevada, and they report related efforts in Idaho and New Mexico.
They hope to start the ball rolling on a path that will lead to California.
The South Dakota initiative would create a special grand jury to hear complaints against judges based on an open-ended list of possible grievances. The list specifically includes not only crimes such as graft but certain flaws in reasoning, such as ignoring evidence and "sophistry."
The grand jury would have power to set aside judges' immunity from civil suits by the people they rule against. It also could levy fines or hand down indictments, subjecting judges to criminal proceedings before special trial juries with the power to sentence as well as convict. After three missteps, a judge would be disqualified from holding office.
The initiative author is Ron Branson, a Baptist minister, a former minor Republican party official in Los Angeles County and a frequent unsuccessful litigator in the state and federal courts.
He said victories in the small states likely would "wake up the sleeping giant" of resentment against judges and attract the $1 million he considers necessary to launch a successful initiative drive for a constitutional amendment in California. To put an initiative on the state ballot, he'd need close to 600,000 signatures.
Valencia lawyer Gary Zerman, who co-founded the organization with Branson, said "not only contributors but volunteers" have come forward in the past week, encouraged by the submission of 46,800 signatures to South Dakota election officials on Nov. 7. The state requires 33,456 valid signatures to qualify for a vote.
The campaign also has begun drawing the attention of leading jurists.
In a speech this week, California Chief Justice Ronald George described it as a threat to judicial independence. [There's that term again that we warned you about -j4j]
He said later that California has an "outstanding and impartial" judiciary and doesn't need "extremists telling us how to change a system that has served us so well and to substitute ... a highly politicized system for the impartial process that we enjoy."
Missouri Chief Justice Michael Wolff, in a September speech to his state's judges and lawyers, also commented on the South Dakota campaign, noting "there is an organization contemplating a similar effort right here."
The organization claims to be active in varying degrees in all 50 states, although not all have the initiative process. It's been on the political scene for almost a decade.
Branson circulated a virtually identical proposal in California in 1996 but gathered only 5,000 to 6,000 signatures - because he had "absolutely no money or help," he said.
He targeted South Dakota, he said, because financing was offered there by William Stegmeier, a local manufacturer of feed-grinding machines.
"We said let's go for it," said Branson, who collected small donations from other sources.
Zerman said a potential financial sponsor has been found in Nevada for a 2006 initiative there.
Its success could ride on what happens in South Dakota in the coming weeks.
South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson said his office usually rejects at least 10 percent of signatures on "very cleanly" circulated petitions and at least 25 percent on sloppily circulated ones.
But that's only a rule of thumb. Without commenting on the JAIL petitions, Nelson said the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, one of the venues where JAIL petitions were circulated, "obviously attracts a lot of out-of-state individuals" whose signatures would be invalidated.
About the writer:
- The Bee's Claire Cooper can be reached at (415) 551-7701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.