For those working to recall Santa Clara County Superior County Judge Aaron Persky, everything centers on his infamous six-month sentence against Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner.
But the Turner case is the last thing that the two candidates running to replace Persky want to discuss. Both women campaigning for Persky's seat explicitly avoid any mention of Turner or any other criminal case to ensure they don't appear prejudiced while aiming for a job that depends entirely on fairness.
Instead, Assistant District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson and civil attorney Angela Storey are competing largely on their legal pedigrees. In a race that hinges entirely on whether or not Persky is recalled, both candidates are positioning themselves as the best qualified to step into the potential vacancy.
Hendrickson, who has been preparing to run since last July, is quick to assert that she is the strongest candidate in the election. To back that claim, she points to the thousands of cases she has successfully prosecuted over her 23 years at the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.
Roughly 97 percent of those criminal cases result in a plea bargain, she said, which often puts her in a position similar to that of a judge. Weighing the factors of each case, she frequently is charged with figuring out the right penalty to fit the crime. It's like "second nature" now for her, she said.
Without mentioning the Turner case, Hendrickson indicated judges do need to take community reaction into account as they issue rulings from the bench. In concept, she supports recalling a judge, saying it will not harm judicial independence.
"It's important that judges, who are making decisions about people's lives, that they reflect the values of the community they serve," Hendrickson said. "If people in a community feel that a judge ceases or has never reflected those values, they have their right to use the tools of democracy."
After completing her undergraduate degree at Stanford University, Hendrickson went to law school at the University of California at Los Angeles, and she served as the student board president for El Centro, a pro bono legal clinic. She later worked as a legal clerk for Johnnie Cochran Jr., best known as the lead defense attorney for the O.J. Simpson case. Her time at Cochran's firm was well before the Simpson case.
After five years as a civil trial lawyer, Hendrickson joined the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office in 1995 as a deputy prosecutor.
"From the first day I knew that it was where I wanted to be," she said. She received special recognition twice for her skill and was promoted to supervising deputy district attorney in 2011 and to assistant district attorney in 2015.
Hendrickson said she never considered being a judge, but she now feels she is the most qualified person to replace Persky if he is removed.
Being a prosecutor "has been training me for it for 23 years," she said. "I've always tried to stay open to where I can be of the most use to the most people, and I'll keep that attitude."
Angela Storey says she has aspired to a judgeship for years, even though she declared her candidacy just three months ago. Once it became clear the recall election would make it onto the June ballot, she said she decided to run to ensure that voters have a choice between as many qualified candidates as possible.
She describes her legal experience as broad, encompassing both civil and criminal matters inside and out of the courtroom. After growing up in Sunnyvale, she went down to UCLA for college and later completed her law degree at Santa Clara University.
Her first job out of school was as a trial attorney for Farmers Insurance. She later worked on construction and business litigation before launching her own practice with her husband in San Jose, Storey & Storey. Her husband largely works in criminal defense while she handles civil cases. She has worked as a temporary small-claims court judge, a dispute mediator and a tournament administrator for Santa Clara County's high school mock trial program.
With a nod to her opponent's career in criminal prosecution, Storey said that she has the more diverse legal background.
"I can come to the bench without an inherent unconscious bias because I haven't done just one side during my career," she said. "My temperament and varied qualifications make me more qualified to be a judge."
Storey is open about sharing her own history as a victim of a sexual assault during her college years. Given that experience, she said she understands the anger focused at Persky by those who believe he was too lenient, yet she is opposed to the campaign to recall him. If the recall goes forward, she worries that judges will be intimidated against making unpopular decisions, leading them to hand down harsher sentences. Those ramifications would fall hardest on people of color and the poor, she said.
"My concern is that this campaign will put pressure on judges to consider public backlash and fear of a recall when they're making their decisions," she said. "We're making strides in criminal justice reform, and this could potentially put us backward in those efforts."
In interviews, both candidates indicated they are trying to keep distance from the Persky recall effort, yet there is some overlap.
Hendrickson made at least two campaign contributions last year to the Committee to Recall Judge Persky. Michelle Dauber, the chair of the pro-recall campaign, said she is supporting Hendrickson for judge.
On the other side, recall opponents favor Storey, said retired judge LaDoris Cordell, a member of the No Recall of Judge Persky steering committee. No formal endorsement has been made, she said.
The election of Hendrickson or Storey will occur only if a majority of voters support Persky's recall in the June 5 election. In that event, the candidate with the most votes will immediately assume his seat on the bench.