In June of 2016, the nation erupted in outrage after Brock Turner—a Stanford student who had been convicted of multiple felonies after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster—was sentenced to a mere six months in county jail. After the sentencing, millions of horrified people read a statement from his victim, who has chosen to remain anonymous, in which she described the impact the assault had on her life: “My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition,” she said. “I became closed off, angry, self deprecating, tired, irritable, empty.”
But Aaron Persky, the judge who presided over the case, seemed to have reserved most of his pity for Turner. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” he said at the sentencing. “I think he will not be a danger to others.” This, it seems, was not an isolated case. The day of Turner’s sentencing, Persky sentenced Ming Hsuan Chiang, a man who had pleaded “no contest” to beating his ex-girlfriend, to just 12 weekends in county jail. During the week, Chiang would be free to continue his job as an engineer in Silicon Valley; his victim, a Chinese immigrant in her 30s, testified that she’d been subjected to “torture” at his hands. And in 2011, Persky presided over a high-profile gang rape civil lawsuit, during which he allowed the defense to introduce photos of the plaintiff scantily dressed in order to disprove her claim that she suffered from PTSD as a result of the alleged assault.
Troubled by these rulings, a group of volunteers started gathering signatures to recall the judge from the bench this summer. “Aaron Persky gave too lenient a sentence to Brock Turner, a former Stanford Swimmer convicted of sexual assault,” the campaign committee wrote on its website RecallAaronPersky.com. “Persky is unfit to sit on the bench, and as long as he is a judge, predators in Santa Clara County will know they have an ally on the bench.” (Other than a brief statement—in which he pointed out his job “is to consider both sides”—released in June, Persky has been largely silent about the recall effort, ignoring requests for comment from the media.)
If the effort is successful, Santa Clara County voters will get the opportunity to decide in a June 2018 election if they want Persky to remain in that role, or if they’d rather choose someone else. By early January, under the California constitution, the campaign will need to garner 58,634 signatures—or 20 percent of the votes cast for the judge in the last election—a number they’ve already surpassed. Now, they’re aiming for 90,000 to discourage against any petition challenges.
Perksy’s challengers are determined, but they face an uphill battle: According to the Mercury News, only two recall efforts in the state have ever been successful—one in 1913, for a judge reducing the bail of a defendant charged with felony assault of a 16-year-old girl, and another in 1932, in which three judges were recalled for using their positions to benefit financially.
“Persky is unfit to sit on the bench, and as long as he is a judge, predators in Santa Clara County will know they have an ally on the bench.”
As the deadline for the recall campaign to submit its signatures gets closer, one important question looms: Who could replace Judge Persky? Earlier this year, Cindy Hendrickson, who has been an assistant district attorney in Santa Clara County for more than 20 years, became the first person to announce her candidacy for Superior Court judge. If she wins, she’ll serve out the rest of Persky’s six-year term, which ends in 2022. (To prepare for the election, Persky has reportedly hired a political consultant who worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)
“I’m really excited to be able to continue my passion [for public service] … to be a part of ensuring the judicial system in Santa Clara County is not only actually unbiased and fair but that that’s the perception that it has as well,” Hendrickson tells Broadly over the phone. “And I will work every day to foster and maintain that perception, because I think it’s so important.”
Hendrickson says she wasn’t interested in running for Superior Court judge at first, but she changed her mind once supporters of the recall effort came to her. “I initially said no because I am happy doing what I’m doing, but then I gave it some more thought, and I really felt like I was uniquely qualified” for the position, she says. “When you have tens of thousands of people that have expressed the concern that one of their judges is biased, and they’re using the tools of democracy to try to unseat him, I think they absolutely need to have the right to follow that procedure to the end.”
Hendrickson won’t comment on whether she actually thinks Persky should be recalled, citing the California Code of Judicial Ethics, but there’s no denying the fact that Hendrickson’s record working on behalf of victims of domestic and sexual violence would serve as a good antidote to Persky’s recent failures. As an executive member of District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s administration, Hendrickson oversees the Family Violence Division, and in 2015 she helped start the San Jose Family Justice Center, where victims of domestic violence can get assistance.
One of the things Hendrickson finds most meaningful about prosecuting cases, especially those involving sexual assault, is being able to help victims navigate the often intimidating and emotionally taxing experience that is going to court. “We wanted to make sure [victims] felt involved in the process—that they understood what was going on, that they didn’t feel like it was something else that was happening to them,” Hendrickson says. As an assistant district attorney, she works on behalf of the people of the state of California, not necessarily a plaintiff. But, she continues, “we wanted them to feel like they were a part of the system—even though I would carefully explain to them that they weren’t my client, and I wouldn’t always be making decisions they agreed with because I did have this obligation to the public and to do what was right for the community.”
In addition to her extensive professional qualifications, Hendrickson says her upbringing in a large, multiracial family shaped her perspective as a prosecutor. She’s the third oldest of 10 children—six biological and five adopted—and though Hendrickson and her parents are white, she has Korean, Vietnamese, and black siblings. “Growing up in my diverse family has helped me to see the world through the eyes of many different people, including those who don't look like me, and I think that broader lens has enhanced my ability to be thoughtful and kind in making decisions that affect other people’s lives,” she says.
“When you have tens of thousands of people that have expressed the concern that one of their judges is biased, and they’re using the tools of democracy to try to unseat him, I think they absolutely need to have the right to follow that procedure to the end.”
“I understand that the appearance of bias can be as hurtful as actual bias,” she continues, careful to speak generally in order to avoid commenting on Persky’s record. “You can’t do anything about bias if you’re not aware of it. People who’ve grown up in communities lacking diversity are not bad people,” she insists. “They’re just not aware of other people’s experiences, and so it’s harder to be sensitive to other people’s experiences when that’s not part of your reality.”
Therein lies the whole reason why activists are demanding Persky’s removal—the lenient sentence he gave Turner, they say, revealed a troubling bias against women. That’s especially problematic in a culture where victims of sexual violence already hesitate to engage in the criminal justice system: Why undergo the emotional burden of facing one’s attacker at a trial and risk retraumatization when it appears, in Persky’s courtroom anyway, the punishment will be nothing short of a slap on the wrist? The legal system already fails victims over and over again without a judge who apparently feels that probation is an appropriate punishment for rape.
To anti-sexual violence activists, Hendrickson’s candidacy for Superior Court judge is pivotal—not only for the people of Santa Clara County, but also in this current cultural moment, where women are standing up against the status quo and shining a light on the prevalence of gender-based discrimination. By bringing some much needed female representation to the bench—not to mention a record that suggests she’ll be more likely to show compassion to victims—Hendrickson could help pave the way for a fairer legal system, one that actually holds abusers accountable for their actions.