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Judge in Stanford sex assault case breaks silence amid sentencing controversy, recall effort

Last Updated May 8, 2018 5:51 PM EDT

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. -- A California judge whose sentence for a former Stanford University swimmer in a sex assault case garnered national controversy broke his silence Tuesday ahead of next month's recall vote.

The effort to recall Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky is being closely watched for its national political implications. If it's successful, Persky would be the first California judge recalled from office in 86 years after he sentenced then-sophomore Brock Turner to six months in jail in June 2016 for sexually assaulting a young woman. 

The short jail sentence sparked national outrage months before the Me Too movement took off.       

The case garnered national attention when BuzzFeed published the victim's emotional account of the attack and its aftermath, which she read in court before Persky sentenced Turner. A jury had found Turner guilty of assaulting the woman while she was incapacitated by alcohol outside an on-campus fraternity house in January 2015. 

Persky said he's remained silent because judges should be accustomed to criticism of their rulings. But he said the recall effort "demands a response" because it threatens the rule of law.

He said judges often face criticism for ruling according to the law and not public opinion. He said the judicial recall, if successful, would be a "silent corrupting force" that would enter the minds of judges when they contemplate difficult decisions.

"We should give judges the courage to make those hard decisions," he said.

He said judges should be allowed to give defendants due process and decide based on the facts of the case without worrying about their jobs or public backlash.  

"They shouldn't be thinking, 'Who's gonna hate me if I decide one way or the other?'" he said.

Persky said he was surprised at the amount of backlash he received in the wake of the Turner sentencing, though he said he did anticipate some. Persky said he got an email in his chambers after the Brock Turner sentencing that said, "Dear Judge Persky, how does it feel to be the most hated man in America?"

"I know firsthand what it's like to be the subject of criticism, outrage, and negative attention," he said.   

He said the negative attention has "permeated my life for the last two years" and affected his work and family. Persky said he is at peace with the criticism, but feels a recall would have far-reaching implications on the judicial system.

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Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, leaves the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California, U.S. September 2, 2016.

REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Persky wouldn't answer specific questions about the Brock Turner case because it is on appeal. But he said ethics rules allow him to point to the transcripts of his comments at the sentencing, which are publicly available.

Persky dismissed allegations that he's shown a pattern of bias in his rulings and said he stands by his decisions.

"I give due weight and consideration to every person that walks into the courtroom regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, that's what we have to do," Persky said.

He said California has a disciplinary system to investigate complaints against judges and a robust appellate process. He said judicial recalls should be reserved for misconduct by a judge or incompetence.  

"Really what I'm asking voters to do is stop and think about the issue, about the implications of the recall," he said.

Stanford law professor Michele Dauber launched the recall campaign soon after Persky's ruling.

She and other recall organizers argue that Persky treated the victim's sexual assault too lightly and appeared overly concerned with the effect of the case on Turner, an athlete on scholarship who had a promising swimming career ahead.

They argued that Perksy exemplifies the criminal justice system's mistreatment of sexual assault victims. Dozens of elected officials across the country have endorsed the recall effort, including New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

"No one should be subjected to sexual assault or harassment. And when it occurs and victims come forward, the justice system must treat them fairly and with respect and dignity," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Judge Persky did not do that and should be held accountable."

Persky's supporters note that the judge adopted a recommendation from the county's probation department in the sentencing and say the recall threatens judicial independence. Turner was also ordered to register as a sex offender for life. He left Stanford and now lives near Dayton, Ohio.

The state's Commission on Judicial Performance, which disciplines state judges, found Persky handled the sentencing appropriately.

The recall campaign has raised money from donors nationwide since launching nearly two years ago. It took that long to collect the necessary voter signatures and clear bureaucratic and legal hurdles. That delay, once viewed as a hindrance to the recall campaign, may have worked in its favor because of the recent attention given to unreported sexual abuse and harassment of women.

And it remains to be seen whether Persky's academic argument that the recall threatens judicial independence will resonate as deeply as the message against Persky.

"That doesn't have the same 'oomph' that the other argument has," said University of Southern California political science professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.

Persky told the San Jose Mercury News editorial board that he agrees the criminal justice system needs to treat sexual assault victims better.

"There is an underlying deep frustration among actual victims of sexual assault and women in general about the criminal justice system not taking sexual assault and domestic violence seriously. It's a very genuine and important problem," Persky said. "The passion is authentic, the end is justified, let's increase sexual assault reporting. Let's do criminal justice reform where it's smart to do so."

But he also stood by the sentence he gave Turner, saying he's been unfairly targeted as the "face of rape" by recall supporters.

"When the case came out and there's the social media outrage, my personal opinion was that I can take the heat, I signed on to this job, I promised to essentially ignore public opinion," he said. "That's the promise we make every juror make when they walk into the courtroom."

Persky is backed by dozens of law school professors, retired judges and the Santa Clara Bar Association.

Santa Clara County residents will also be asked to vote for one of two lawyers on the ballot vying to replace Persky if he's recalled.

Joshua Spivak, an elections scholar who studies recalls, said the "recall of judges almost never happen."

He said the last judge recalled by voters in the United States was in 1977.