Cheryl Miller
The Recorder

December 5, 2011

SACRAMENTO — With 2011 nearing a close, California lawyers must be wondering which will arrive first: Gov. Jerry Brown’s first trial court appointments or Santa Claus.

Nearly a full year into his administration, Brown has named just one jurist — albeit a very high-profile one — to the bench: Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. Meanwhile, vacancies in the superior and appellate courts have gone unfilled and totaled 62 at the end of October, the latest figure available from the Administrative Office of the Courts. The vacancy rate is nearing a two-year high.

Earlier in the year Brown’s office tied the slow judicial appointments process to the governor’s focus on the budget and other pressing issues. Since then he has sent an unknown number of candidates’ names to the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and to secret regional screening committees for review. Those familiar with the process say Brown could announce his first picks this month.

But those same sources also say the governor’s staff has let it be known that they weren’t satisfied with the breadth and depth of the initial applicant pool. Brown chose the untraditional route in selecting the academic Liu instead of the more typical appellate justice for the high court vacancy. He appears to be taking the same approach to picking trial court judges, seeking candidates who are not only diverse ethnically but have varied professional backgrounds.

“The governor is focused on diversity and well-qualified applicants, and there are some counties where there just haven’t been enough of those candidates,” said Ruthe Ashley, a legal consulting firm president who is a veteran of efforts to diversify the judiciary. “They’re really looking to increase the pool.”

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor’s office continues to vet candidates and expects to make appointments “over the next several months.” He declined to answer questions about the applicant pool.

“We continue to encourage the best and the brightest applicants to apply for a judicial appointment,” Westrup said in an email. “We’re confident our future judicial appointees will have the necessary skills and experience to do the job well.”

There is some precedent for a governor moving slowly to fill the bench in his first year. Gov. Gray Davis took 10 months to announce his first picks — three justices to the Second District Court of Appeal. Arnold Schwarzenegger waited a year to select his first trial court judges.

But unlike those governors, Brown has chosen not to create a full-time judicial appointments secretary position. He said at the beginning of his term that he didn’t need one, that his office has plenty of lawyers, including himself and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, to offer counsel.

Joshua Groban, a senior adviser to Brown, has emerged as the governor’s point man on judicial appointments. He and Brown’s appointments secretary, Mona Pasquil, have met and spoken with numerous ethnic and local bar groups, sources say. But some question whether the lack of a dedicated judicial vetter will hinder the governor achieving his goal of a deeper applicant pool.

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