California Voters Just Recalled a Judge Who Didn’t Take Rape Seriously

Voters in Santa Clara County made history on election night when they recalled Judge Aaron Persky, who had a history of leniently sentencing perpetrators of violence against women. In 2016, Persky sentenced Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to only six months in jail after he was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault for raping an anonymous survivor called Emily Doe. His ruling provoked outrage—and a hard-fought, two-year recall campaign to remove him from the bench.

“The vote today is a vote against impunity for high-status offenders of domestic violence and sexual violence,” Michele Dauber, the Stanford law professor who led the Recall Persky Campaign, said to the media Tuesday night. “This victory is not just for Emily Doe, but for girls and women everywhere.”

In 2016, activists in California rallied outside as they delivered petitions demanding Judge Persky’s removal. (Copyright Melissa Byrne for UltraViolet)

Experts in the legal community called Persky’s 2016 decision “stunning;” the San Jose Mercury News labeled it “a slap on the wrist” and a “setback in the movement to take campus rape seriously.” Persky’s decision became the focus of international attention after Buzzfeed released a harrowing victim impact statement from Emily Doe, a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the woman he attacked—who was found unconscious and learned the details of her own assault days later by reading the news. The letter quickly went viral, prompting then-Vice President Joe Biden to write Doe an open letter calling her bravery “breathtaking.” Outrage around Turner’s sentence also led California Governor Jerry Brown sign two bills enhancing the power of judges to treat sex crime as rape and mandating that sentences include time in a state prison. Doe went on to win a 2016 Glamour Women of the Year Award for the statement’s impact. 

“This was how I learned what happened to me, sitting at my desk reading the news at work,” Doe wrote in her statement, which she read to the court during Turner’s trial. “I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me. That’s when the pine needles in my hair made sense, they didn’t fall from a tree. He had taken off my underwear, his fingers had been inside of me. I don’t even know this person. I still don’t know this person. When I read about me like this, I said, this can’t be me. This can’t be me. I could not digest or accept any of this information. I could not imagine my family having to read about this online. I kept reading. In the next paragraph, I read something that I will never forgive; I read that according to him, I liked it.”

Persky, whose campaign hired a former consultant to the Trump campaign, had resorted to victim-blaming and rape apology in advance of the election to save his seat. Recently, his attorney contested basic facts of the case, telling Vogue that Doe “was not attacked,” and using the fact that she had been drinking that night to bolster his claim; the same attorney also implied that she had not authored her statement, a claim that was echoed by other opponents of the recall—some of whom have also called a recent threat to Dauber’s life a “publicity stunt.” 

As of midnight local time in California on election night, with 43 percent of precincts reporting, 59 percent of voters had supported the recall. The vote marks the first time a judge has been recalled in the state since 1932. “Tonight’s results mirror what we heard when we were out talking to voters,” Dauber said in a statement. “We are thankful to our supporters and to every person who donated their time—it truly made a difference.”


Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.