In the last year, there have been three retirements on the Yolo County Superior Court – Judge Steven Basha retired nearly a year ago, Judge Kathleen White and Judge Janet Gaard retired in the last month. Governor Brown this week filled two of those seats, leaving the third one for incoming Governor Gavin Newsom to fill.
Judge White was appointed by Governor Davis while Judge Basha and Judge Gaard were appointed by Governor Scharzenegger. The appointments continue to move the needle in the direction of more Democratic Governor appointments, but while both men, Tom Dyer and Peter Williams, are Democrats, in most ways the appointments are disappointing and worse yet – a lost opportunity to remake the local court.
I stress that this is not a judgment personally or otherwise against the men appointed by the governor. Nor is this a judgment on the overall legacy of his appointments. However, looking at this from the standpoint of Yolo County and the standpoint of transformational change in the criminal justice system – these appointments leave a lot to be desired.
We hold out hope – albeit faint hope at this point – that the governor can right some wrongs in his last days. We would love to see him commute the sentence of Ajay Dev and see him effectively end the death penalty in California. But those hopes are fading as are hopes for deep changes.
Our view of the Yolo County Superior Court bench has been that it is largely white, filled mainly with Republican Governor Appointees, however, up until the recent retirements it was fairly gender balanced.
The two appointments leaves the count as follows: 10 sitting judges, 2 of them women. Two. In 2018. We have Judge Janene Beronio who was elected to the bench in 2014 and Sonia Cortes who was appointed by Governor Brown in 2016.
This is 2018 and Governor Brown inexplicably fills judgeships held by women and appoints men in their place.
Worse yet, there is but one person of color on the bench – Sonio Cortes.
So the count is: 8 white men, one white woman, and one Latina.
There are those who will scoff at gender and race and ethnicity. But Yolo County is already one of the most racially disproportionate counties in the state. The overall breakdown by race is that Yolo County is 48 percent non-Hispanic white, 31 percent Latino and 13.8 percent Asian.
The court system however, look very different. The majority of people in the system – vast majority – are people of color. And while the system in California is racially disproportionate, the system in Yolo is far worse.
Whites in Yolo County are imprisoned at a rate of 314 per 100,000 people. That is actually about 19 percent higher than the statewide average of 264 per 100,000. Meanwhile Latinos are imprisoned at more than twice the rate 676 per 100,000. That’s 21 percent higher than the statewide average. Finally blacks are imprisoned at the remarkable rate of 3101 per 100,000 or 35% above the statewide average.
The majority of the people in the criminal justice system in Yolo County are people of color, prosecuted by largely white prosecutors and presided over by almost exclusively white judges. Governor Brown had a chance to change this system – but he failed to do so.
Interestingly enough, Governor Brown picked two men, neither of whom live in Yolo County, At least Tom Dyer is a graduate of UC Davis School of Law, but Peter Williams appears to have no ties whatsoever to Yolo County as he graduated from UC Santa Barbara for undergraduate and the University of San Diego School of Law.
Moreover, both men are former prosecutors with Mr. Dyer having been a Deputy DA in Sutter County while Mr. Williams was a prosecutor for both the state Office of Attorney General and the US Attorney’s Office in both the Eastern and Central Districts of California.
Both men were appointees previously of Governor Brown. Mr. Dyer served chief deputy legislative affairs secretary in the Office of Governor Brown while Mr. Williams has served as deputy secretary, general counsel at the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency since 2016.
It remains to be seen how their tenure will go as judges in Yolo County. But in terms of what the Yolo County bench needed – more diverse backgrounds, these appointments come up disappointingly short.
—David M. Greenwald reporting