Jewish Journal


August 23, 2001

Here Come the Judges

Is a Jewish court seat needed?


Gov. Gray Davis announced four possible nominees for California's Supreme Court, to fill the vacancy left by the late Justice Stanley Mosk in June.

With one vacancy on a court with no Jewish or Latino members, the nomination involves serious political stakes for Davis.

The longest serving Supreme Court justice in California's history, with 37 years on the bench, Mosk was the only Jewish judge and the only Democrat on the seven-member court at the time of his death.

The four possible successors to Mosk are: Justice Dennis Cornell of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno; U.S. District Judge Carlos Moreno of Los Angeles; Judge Dennis Perluss of Los Angeles Superior Court and Justice Steven Perren of the Second District Court of Appeal in Ventura.

Perluss and Perren are Jewish. Moreno is Latino. If elevated to the Supreme Court, Moreno would be the only Latino on the court.

The Judicial Nominees Evaluation Committee of the State Bar must evaluate each of the four possible candidates. Analysts expect the committee to find all four candidates qualified for the job. A three-member panel consisting of Davis, Chief Justice Ronald George and Attorney General Bill Lockyer will then make the final decision.

None of the potential successors are seen to be as politically progressive as Mosk, who was renowned in judicial circles for his advocacy of individuals' rights. Mosk's influential legal strategies included relying on California's state constitution to guarantee freedoms beyond those of the federal constitution.

The four potential successors also differ from Mosk in their experience on the bench. While the four have spent their careers practicing law, Mosk had a long political career before he was named to the Supreme Court. In 1958, Mosk became the first Jewish person elected to statewide office in California when he became attorney general.

Comparing the judges' records is "like comparing apples and oranges," says Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson. Because they served on different courts and presided over different types of cases, it is difficult to weigh their experience. But all four are perceived as moderate Democrats with excellent qualifications for the high court.

Justice Mosk's death again raises a perennial political question for such positions -- is there a need for a "Jewish seat" on the state's highest court?

Levenson, who knows both Perluss and Perren says, "If you talk about somebody who just happens to be Jewish, that's not important. But both of these Jewish candidates are dedicated to the Jewish community and dedicated to justice. Do I think that's helpful? You bet."

Perluss and Perren are both active members of their local communities. Perluss is married to Rabbi Emily Feigenson of Leo Baeck Temple. Perren is a member of the High Holy Days choir at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura and an occasional cantorial soloist.

Perluss is the candidate best qualified to fill Mosk's robes, says Doug Mirell, president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (which takes no stance on state Supreme Court nominees). Mirell knew Perluss before he was a judge. Mosk was "an intellectual heavyweight, prepared to test the boundaries of the law, and he did so in a way that was intellectually honest, nonideological. These characteristics he shares with Judge Perluss," Mirell says.

Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura was enthusiastic about consideration of her congregant, Perren, for the seat. "[Perren] is a man of uncommon character, she says. "He sees law as the means to a higher end, which is creating a caring and ethical society. These are Jewish values for him."

As for the political question of a Jewish court seat, Mirell says that "to suggest that it is more important to have a Jewish voice than a Latino voice on the court is problematic. It is important to make the decision based on the unique role that Justice Mosk carved for himself."

In that sense, Levenson says, all four judges seem well-qualified. "If you look across the board here, it is a solid field," she says. "Each of these candidates is a mensch. The governor has done an outstanding job."

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