Fifty California residents have filed a petition to recall the California judge who drew national criticism for issuing a short jail sentence to Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus.
The effort to recall Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky - the first official move to get him off the bench since Turner's sentencing in June 2016 - has garnered endorsements from members of Congress, national women's rights organizations and leaders in Silicon Valley. They argue that Persky has favoured defendants in sexual assault cases and should be held to account for the imbalance.
"Today we take the first step," Michele Landis Dauber, a Stanford law professor who is leading the recall committee seeking Persky's removal, said Monday after filing the petition. "Judge Persky has a long history of leniency in cases involving sexual assault. Here in Silicon Valley, women have had enough."
Persky did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Turner was convicted of three felony sex crimes in March 2016 for sexually assaulting a woman who had passed out behind a dumpster outside of a fraternity party. The case drew widespread attention in part because Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail. Turner was released after serving three months behind bars. An attorney representing Turner declined to comment Monday.
Persky's handling of the case mobilised activists across the country who believe the legal system too often protects perpetrators of sexual assault rather than the survivors. Millions of people signed a Change.org petition calling for Persky's removal from the bench, while others took to social media to vent their frustrations. The woman who Turner assaulted also released a powerful public statement in which she called Turner's sentencing "a soft timeout." And the judge received death threats.
Persky has seven days to respond to the petition, after which the committee has 150 days to collect nearly 59,000 signatures from registered Santa Clara County voters to get it onto the state wide primary election ballot on June 5, 2018.
Those who have worked with Persky in the Santa Clara legal community say that the attacks on his judgment are shocking, and they have described him as an intelligent jurist who knows the law and carefully applies it.
Sajid Khan, a public defender in San Jose, said he is disappointed the recall effort is ongoing, calling it shortsighted: "It sends the message that we want judges to be harsh and punitive in their sentencing rather than merciful and compassionate."
Following the sentencing last year, thousands of people wrote to the Commission on Judicial Performance, an independent agency charged with disciplining judges, calling for an investigation into Persky's sentencing of Turner. Many alleged Persky had shown bias in Turner's favour because Persky also is a former student and athlete at Stanford.
The commission opened an investigation but decided not to discipline Persky, citing lack of clear evidence of misconduct.
Members of the Committee to Remove Persky say the Turner case is just one of many sexual assault and domestic violence cases in which Persky has shown deference to defendants, many of whom were student athletes.
In 2015, Persky delayed sentencing for University of Hawaii football player Ikaika Gunderson so he could continue to play football. Gunderson pleaded no contest to a felony count of domestic violence for beating and choking his ex-girlfriend. The conviction carried up to four years in state prison, but Persky offered to lower Gunderson's charge to a misdemeanour if he completed a year-long domestic violence program. Months later, Gunderson was arrested on another domestic violence charge.
Meghan Warner, 23, a sexual assault survivor and PhD candidate at Stanford, researched Persky's former cases for the committee and believes there is a pattern. She is hopeful the recall will offer many women a sense of peace.
"It was hard to see that so many women have been denied justice," Warner said. "I am confident the campaign will be successful and make women in the county safer."