Even before this week, Yolo County’s bench seemed out of step with the rest of the state. For the last 13 years, according to various media sources, California’s bench has become more diverse—more women, more people of color. Not Yolo County.
Yolo County is moving in the opposite direction with 8 white men and two women, one of whom is Latina. That was before Tuesday when Governor Newsom made what appears to be the latest appointment based on political connections.
Dan Wolk as you know is the former Mayor of Davis, having served from 2014 to 2016. In both 2014 and 2016, he ran for State Assembly and lost, first to Bill Dodd and then to Cecilia Aguiar-Curry. His professional experience is a little over a decade working for the Solano County Counsel’s office.
He has limited trial experience and his chief qualifications appear to be the fact that his mother is a retired State Senator and his father is a retired Dean of the UC Davis Law School.
Dan Wolk appears to be the latest Yolo County appointment that is based more on who someone is than their qualifications to be judge. That’s not fair to Dan Wolk and this issue did not begin with Governor Gavin Newsom—it is a trend.
And it is a problem for the diversity on the Yolo County bench, which now has 9 white men in a county where whites only make up 46 percent of the total population, according to 2019 census estimates.
Indeed, if you look at Governor Newsom’s judicial appointments overall on Tuesday, people wanting diversity would applaud them.
In March of 2019 after Governor Jerry Brown stepped down, a survey found that for the 13th straight year, California’s judicial bench has grown more diverse, according to new data released by the Judicial Council.
Governor Brown’s appointments, including the nearly 200 appointments made in his final year in office: women accounted for more than half of those appointees, and 41 percent identified as non-white.
Governor Newsom continued that trend as last year, his first, he appointed a majority of women and nonwhites to the bench.
That continued on Tuesday. Governor Newsom appointed 14 people to the bench—8 women and just two white males.
So why is Yolo County different than other counties?
A big part has to do with its location, roughly 15 minutes from the State Capitol on the other side of the Sacramento River.
It is a small county, but it is prominent—the home of UC Davis, a major law school and academic center. Davis also happens to be the home of a number of State Capitol employees and staffers.
The problem here is actually very clear, and it goes back to the last six governor appointments to the bench starting in 2008.
In 2012, Janene Beronio, one of the two women on the bench, was elected when retiring Judge Stephen Mock stepped down at the end of his term.
In 2015, Governor Brown appointed Sonia Cortés, the first Latina to be judge in Yolo County.
In 2018, he appointed Tom Dyer and Peter Williams, both of whom were attorneys in his administration.
Now, in 2020, Governor Newsom appoints Dan Wolk, the former Mayor of Davis and the son of State Senator Lois Wolk.
While the 2018 appointees did not live in Yolo County, Sam McAdam, Dan Maguire, and Dan Wolk all live in Davis and Sonia Cortés lived in Woodland.
A key question is why has Yolo County become the place where governors stick their legal counsel when they wish to award them with appointments?
Clearly, being near the capital is to Yolo County’s detriment. Clearly Yolo County lacks a deep bar association that is diverse. But we also know for a fact that there were very qualified women and women of color who have put their hats in the ring and got passed over in the last three appointments.
Is no one at the governor’s office paying attention to the bench in Yolo for ethnic make up?
One thing that has shifted in the last three appointments—the partisan make up of the bench. For a long time, not only was the bench white and male, but it was also disproportionately Republican. This is a heavily Democratic County, as two-thirds of the voters in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton.
Now five of the 11 judges were appointed by Democrats—Dave Rosenberg by Gray Davis in 2003, and the three most recent appointments by Jerry Brown with Dan Wolk by Gavin Newsom.
This isn’t about whether or not Dan Wolk will be a good judge; he will be a judge, and hopefully he does well. This really isn’t about him. It is about the process. The fact is that governors in recent years have done a good job of creating a much more diverse bench in California, and my only complaint is that when it comes to Yolo County, we have been shortchanged.
Nine white male judges in this era with 10 years of Democratic governors should not happen.
With all due respect to the last three appointments, Yolo County deserves better than to get a rash of political appointments with little regard to the overall lack of diversity of its bench.
Contrast that to San Francisco which in March elected three progressive women to its bench. It is hard to imagine two more different judicial environments, and given the notion of equal justice under the law and the fact that the vast majority of criminal defendants in Yolo County are black and brown—a disproportionate number, mind you—it would seem that a bench more reflective of the population demographics would be fairer.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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