Could the judge in the Stanford rape case actually be recalled?

Following the national outcry after a judge handed a Stanford University student a six-month sentence for raping an unconscious woman, activists have petitioned the state's judicial review board asking for the judge's removal.

Jason Doiy/The Recorder/AP/File
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky drew criticism for sentencing former Stanford University student Brock Turner to only six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

The case of Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student convicted of sexual assault, has gained national attention amid an outcry over the six-month sentence he received. More than a million people have signed recall petitions for Judge Aaron Persky, who issued the sentence. 

After Turner's conviction in March, prosecutors requested six years in prison. Instead, Judge Persky decided to sentence Turner to six months in county jail and a requirement to register as a sex offender, in line with the probation officers' recommendations, The San Jose Mercury News reported. 

The sentence fell below the "mandatory minimum" for the crime, which Persky attributed to Turner's youth, his intoxicated state, and his lack of criminal record. Following the survivor's testimony going viral, the public's response to the sentencing has been unprecedented, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. 

Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law and a Title IX expert, told The Monitor that "public attitudes about appropriate punishment often drives change".

One change many are calling for is the removal of Persky from the bench. There are two efforts to remove him, one focusing on a recall election and the other demanding his removal by the California Commission on Judicial Performance. Those demanding his removal by the judicial commission, which has not commented on the issue, delivered the petition with a million signatures at a rally on Friday. 

Michele Dauber, the Stanford law professor who is part of the recall effort, told NPR that Persky's lenient sentencing due to Turner's drunkenness, academic accomplishments, and athletic success prior to the sentencing endangered college-aged women.    

"That that description fits essentially every campus rape at Stanford certainly and many schools across the country," Dauber told NPR. "So it means that he has essentially taken campus rape out of the category of things you can go to prison for, and awarded it a lighter sentence."

Dr. Dauber is working with Progressive Women Silicon Valley on the recall election, and told NPR an official signature gathering effort for a recall vote would begin shortly. To reach the ballot, the petition would need the signature of 60,000 Santa Clara County voters, the Mercury News reported. If he is defeated, another candidate will be selected to replace Persky, who began a new six-year term last week after being reelected with no opponent.

The Marshall Project, a news organization focused on criminal justice, reported that recalling a sitting judge is "almost unheard of", allowed only in eight states. The judicial branch "is traditionally seen as deserving protection from popular whim, political pressure, or, as in this case, the increasing influence of social media", the Marshall Project reported. 

"Judges are only supposed to face recall, if at all, when they’ve committed a crime while in office or are deemed physically or mentally incompetent to actually do their job," William Raftery, a senior analyst for the National Center for State Courts, told the Marshall Project. 

Unlike other states, the reasons for recall are not evaluated for merit by state in California, and a petition with enough signatures is all that is necessary for a recall election. Although there have been 27 attempts to recall state Supreme Court justices since 1913, The Marshall project reported there were "hardly any" accounts of less prominent judges facing recall efforts in recent years. 

Local legal organizations have spoken out against the recall effort. The Santa Clara District Attorney's Office, which led the case against Turner, said although they believed Persky made the wrong decision, there were no legal grounds to question the ruling, according to the Mercury News. The Santa Clara County Bar Association also spoke out against the recall effort, saying it was a threat to judicial independence and there was no proof Judge Persky "violated the law or his ethical obligations or acted in bad faith."

Dauber, however, told CNN she was confident the recall effort would succeed. 

"We are aware of the task, do not feel at all daunted by it, and are confident that we can prevail," she said. "We believe that we can do better than Aaron Persky and that after this election we will have a new judge who is committed to womens' safety and security on campus."

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