I recently read a document by retired judge LaDoris H. Cordell, titled “People of Color Should Oppose the Recall Campaign Against Judge Persky.” I happen to be a person of color, and to utilize Judge Cordell’s phrasing, I couldn’t disagree more.
Judge Cordell argues that voters should oppose the recall because if it succeeds, “it will be harder for low-income defendants, most of whom are of color, and harder for those who advocate for them, to receive judicial consideration of mitigating circumstances. I’m not just making this up. Several empirical studies have concluded that judges impose harsher sentences when pressured by elections, and that these effects are concentrated on defendants of color.”
What I read here is that people of color should act against their own self-interest. Instead of advocating for systemic change to address the apparent bias and corruption in our court systems, Judge Cordell suggests that a single recall will allow judges to be more openly racist in their rulings, so to avoid that they should not support the campaign. Why should we have to accept one set of injustices in order to prevent another?
I am a social worker. A social worker who has worked with disadvantaged and minority communities in Georgia and California, some which include very similar low-income defendants of color to those that Judge Cordell believes will be harmed. I’ve worked with clients, women and men of color, who faced oppression and unending injustice when they tried to address their domestic abuse or sexual assaults. I know that some support the recall because they feel they are finally being given a voice.
Judge Cordell refers to threats to judicial independence. Firstly, a recall election is a very long, extensive, and expensive process. They will not start happening willy-nilly if this one succeeds simply because campaigns will rarely get all the resources they need. As the judge points out, she herself delivered a very unfavorable sentence but was not subject to a recall effort. Why? Because it was not part of a pattern of bias. Persky’s is, people can see it, and that’s why they support it on the scale they do.
Secondly, judges have not been subjected to mass recall campaigns in the past and it is unclear how one single successful campaign might change that. Persky has repeatedly shown a pattern of bias by handing down lighter sentences to white and privileged perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual abuse often towards women of color. If judges handed down just and sufficient sentences, there would be no need to “[test] the winds before rendering their decisions.” It speaks volumes that tens of thousands of Santa Clara County voters and millions of Americans worldwide support this campaign.
Thirdly, to borrow words from Judge Cordell, “[o]ur criminal justice system is deeply unjust.” Yes, it is. It is beyond tiresome to continue watching judges like Persky hand out weak sentences to white and privileged offenders. Judges absolutely have discretion in their sentencing, which is made very clear by the disproportionate number of brown and black bodies in jails and prisons throughout the country.
Finally, as women of color we must insist on justice and equality for all people of color. We can recall a judge who has a significant pattern of bias when it comes to weak sentences for white and privileged perpetrators of gender-based violence while also support reforming a racist criminal justice system that incarcerates far too many people of color. This is not a zero-sum game; it’s a unified march. In his April 16th, 1963 letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. describes “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” compared to “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” I prefer the latter.
I am unsure what the full intentions behind Judge Cordell’s letter are, but intended or not, it is divisive. She pushes the notion that ‘women’ and ‘people of color’ are two entirely separate categories with no possible intersection. Not only is there a lot of intersection, they are inextricable. It is hurtful and harmful to ask someone to choose between their sex and their race; doesn’t one’s core identity include both?
I am a sexual assault survivor, and I find Judge Cordell’s suggestion that as a minority rape victim I should not support the recall in lieu of supporting a judge who favors white and privileged men offensive. Women of color survivors are being told, sadly by another woman of color, that their experiences and their worth are less important than that of other members of their communities. Our justice is not as important in the grand scheme because we might upset the system. We mustn’t poke the patriarchal bear.
I am proud to be Co-Chair of the Recall Persky Campaign because I believe holding him and others like him accountable for their rulings will make things better for people of color. As a survivor who never got justice, I want to do my part to help end rape culture so other victims don’t have to face a Judge Persky again. Continuing to sweep these issues under the rug does not work and simply isn’t an option anymore.
Enough is enough.
Sita Stukes, MSW
Co-Chair, Recall Persky Campaign