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Judicial Elections: How California Judges are (Most often) Appointed and (Sometimes) Elected

Updated: Apr 28

By Mary Gandesbery

California courts exist at three levels: local superior courts in each of California’s 58 counties, appellate courts in each of the six state appellate districts, and the  California Supreme Court with statewide jurisdiction. Below we summarize how judges and justices at all levels obtain their positions. 

Superior Court Judges:  

Appointments:  The governor appoints the vast majority of Superior court judges either for a full  6-year term or the remaining portion of a 6-year term.  To be eligible for  any judicial position at any level, a candidate must be an attorney who has been admitted to practice for 10 years or who has served as a California judge for the 10 years immediately preceding the appointment. The State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE) thoroughly investigates and evaluates nominees’ background and qualifications prior to their appointment to the Superior court. The evaluations are strictly confidential.

Elections:  If a Superior court  judge reaches the end of a 6-year term, that judge will begin a new 6-year term unless an attorney meeting the minimum qualifications steps forward as a challenger. In that case, the sitting judge and the challenger(s) will appear on the ballot and one will be elected by county voters on a nonpartisan basis.   Importantly, judicial candidates challenging a seated judge are not evaluated by the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees and may or may not be evaluated by the local bar association.  Thus elected judges who have not previously been  appointed by the governor are not subject to the same thorough review and scrutiny as appointed judges. 

For more information about the appointment and election process for superior court judges, please see the presentation sponsored by the San Francisco League of Women Voters at following link: 

Appellate and Supreme Court Justices

Considerably more vetting and voting is required for justices on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Appointments and Nominations: Rather than appointing, the governor nominates candidates for a 12-year term. An exception is that the governor may appoint justices to complete any vacancies arising during a full term. At this level, it is the Commission on Judicial Appointments which confirms the governor’s nominations or interim appointments. The Commission holds a public hearing to consider the candidate’s qualifications, and the nomination or appointment is effective only if confirmed by the Commission. The JNE also investigates and evaluates prospective justices’ backgrounds and qualifications.

Elections:  Once confirmed by the Commission, nominated justices appear on the ballot and must obtain voter approval to replace the departing justice. With voter approval, elected justices’ terms begin in January following the election. Newly appointed justices filling judicial vacancies must stand for retention in the next gubernatorial election after their appointments. With voter approval, these justices then serve the remainder of the 12-year terms to which they were appointed. If the term for the retiring justice, expires after the November gubernatorial election, then the successor begins a new 12-year term without standing for election

For further information about the appointment and elections process for all members of the California judiciary, please see a summary prepared by the Santa Clara County League of Women Voters at the following link: Judicial System FAQs


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