Appellate Retention Elections

What They Are and How to Learn More about the Appellate Courts and the Justices Who Serve on Them

Every four years, more than a third of California’s 99 court of appeal justices face California voters for retention. In addition, several of the seven justices on the California Supreme Court face retention elections every four years. These are not contested elections; no one may run against the justices. Instead, the voters simply decide whether the justice shall continue to serve. If a majority of voters cast "yes" votes for a particular justice, that justice remains for another term. The Code of Judicial Ethics requires all judges "to be faithful to the law regardless of partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism . . . ." The retention election system, adopted by California voters as part of the State Constitution, is designed specifically to foster judges’ independence from improper external pressures.

Because supreme court justices hold statewide offices, voters everywhere in California decide whether to retain them. In contrast, because court of appeal justices serve in districts, voters in each district alone decide whether to retain them. California’s 99 court of appeal justices are divided among six districts, centered in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Fresno, and San Jose.

Supreme and appellate court justices generally do not actively campaign for retention. The only promise they can make voters is to decide appeals impartially and according to the law, without fear or favor toward any individual or group. However, they do seek to provide helpful information to voters. The justices have worked closely and actively with the Secretary of State’s Office to help the public learn more about the appellate courts, who the appellate justices are, and what they do.

As a consequence, voters everywhere in California can easily get biographical information on every justice who appears on the ballot. As to supreme court justices, the information is contained in the statewide ballot pamphlet sent to all voters by the Secretary of State. As to court of appeal justices, the official statewide voter pamphlet does not contain biographical sketches, but does refer voters to an Internet website and a toll-free telephone hotline so they may obtain justices’ biographies, either online or through receipt of the Judicial Information Booklet on request. The Secretary of State’s Internet website and Judicial Information Booklet also include brief descriptions of the appellate courts and how they differ from trial courts.

To gain access to these materials, voters may go to the Secretary of State’s website or call the telephone hotline at 1(800) 345-VOTE.

While supreme and appellate court justices perform their roles quietly and without fanfare, the public can find much of their work published in law books titled "California Reports," "California Appellate Reports" and "California Reporter." Each of California’s 58 counties has a public law library containing these books, as do law schools and most law offices. Recently issued opinions are available on the same day they are filed at 'Opinions' which is maintained by the Judicial Council of California.

Adding to the data supplied by the Secretary of State, the Judicial Branch’s website that you are currently reading from also contains biographical information about all the appellate court justices, as well as informative articles entitled "How Appellate and Supreme Court Justices are Selected" and "What Appellate Justices Do."