SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A judge whose sentencing of a former Stanford University swimmer to six months in jail for sexual assault touched off a national debate over campus rape took himself off criminal cases — but efforts to remove him from the bench are still moving forward.
Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky asked to be relieved from hearing criminal matters and transferred to another court, which was granted.
"While I firmly believe in Judge Persky's ability to serve in his current assignment, he has requested to be assigned to the civil division, in which he previously served," Presiding Judge Rise Pichon said. "Judge Persky believes the change will aid the public and the court by reducing the distractions that threaten to interfere with his ability to effectively discharge the duties of his current criminal assignment."
The move is not necessarily permanent — it is subject to an annual review and takes effect Sept. 6.
Another judge's desire to transfer to Palo Alto made it possible to do a quick swap with Persky, Pichon said. Normally such changes don't happen until a new year starts.
"It's unusual, but not unprecedented," judicial ethics expert Richard Zitrin said of Persky's transfer request.
The move would have been more unusual had court management decided to transfer Persky against his will, Zitrin said.
"It's entirely appropriate for the judge to ask for a transfer if he felt he could no longer be effective," said Zitrin, a University of California, San Francisco, law professor.
Persky in June ordered the six-month sentence for Brock Turner, a Dayton, Ohio, resident who had been attending Stanford on a swimming scholarship. The judge cited a probation department recommendation and the effect the conviction will have on the 20-year-old's life.
Authorities say Turner sexually assaulted the girl last year while she was passed out near a trash bin next to a campus fraternity house. They had both been drinking heavily.
The sentence that many considered lenient and a powerful statement from the victim that was widely shared made the case a national rallying cry for a reconsideration of how sexual assault is handled by the courts. It also led to a recall effort against the judge.
Michelle Dauber, the Stanford law professor behind the campaign, said that while she welcomes Persky's decision to leave criminal court, the recall effort will continue, in part because he "can still transfer back to hearing criminal cases any time he chooses."
"The issue of his judicial bias in favor of privileged defendants in sex crimes and domestic violence still needs to be addressed by the voters of Santa Clara County," Dauber said in an email. "In our opinion, Judge Persky is biased and should not be on the bench."
Recall organizers say they will begin collecting signatures in April to try to qualify the issue for the November 2017 ballot.
Persky had already left two sex-crimes cases since sentencing Turner. He formally recused himself Monday from deciding whether to reduce a San Jose plumber's felony child pornography charges to misdemeanors.
That came two months after the district attorney's office removed Persky from a different sexual assault case, saying "we lack confidence" in the judge's ability to decide it impartially.
In addition to his supervising judge, attorneys who have argued in front of Persky back his abilities. Santa Clara County deputy public defender Gary Goodman in June called him a "solid and respected judge," while defense attorney Barbara Muller said he's "one of the fairest judges" in the county.
Dalton reported from Los Angeles.