SAN DIEGO — Four conservative attorneys say they are on a mission from God to unseat four California judges in a rare challenge that is turning a traditionally dull election into what both sides call a battle for the integrity of US courts.
Vowing to be God’s ambassadors on the bench, the rival San Diego Superior Court candidates are backed by pastors, gun enthusiasts, and opponents of abortion and gay marriages.
“We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values,’’ said Craig Candelore, a family law attorney who is one of the group’s candidates. “Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary.’’
The challenge is unheard of in California, one of 33 states to directly elect judges. Critics say the campaign is aimed at packing the courts with judges who adhere to the religious right’s moral agenda and threatens the impartiality of the court system and the separation of church and state.
Opponents fear that the June 8 race is a strategy that could transform courtroom benches just like some school boards, which have seen an increasing number of Christian conservatives win seats in cities across the country and push for such issues as prayer in classrooms.
“Any organization that wants judges to subscribe to a certain political party or certain value system or certain way of ruling to me threatens the independence of the judiciary,’’ San Diego County’s District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.
“Judges should be evaluated based on their qualifications and their duty to follow the law.’’
The campaign by California’s social conservatives comes at a time when judges and scholars in many states are debating whether judges should be elected or appointed, citing the danger that campaign contributions could influence their rulings. Other states have lifted restrictions to let judges express their opinions publicly so people know what their biases are.
Special interest groups, including those representing gay marriage opponents, have stepped up donations for judicial races in recent years, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s school of law.