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Independent Commission Grades Judges Ahead Of Retention Vote


Whether it’s county council, school board or a bond you probably know how you’re going to fill out your ballot. But there’s one part of the ballot that many voters are clueless on, judge retention. Many are unaware that Utah has an independent evaluation commission for judges, KPCW spoke with their executive director.

The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission was founded in 2008 by the Utah legislature. The independent organization hands out performance reviews for all of Utah’s judges giving voters the opportunity to learn more about a judge’s performance.

The committee is made up of 13 members. The Utah Supreme Court and the Governor each appoint four members, the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives each appoint two members and the executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice also serve on the commission. No more than seven members of the commission may be attorneys. No more than half the members appointed by each branch of government be of the same political party. Executive Director Jenifer Yim explains what criteria they use to evaluate judges.

“We evaluate judges on eight different performance standards. We look at their legal ability, we look at their administrative skills, integrity and judicial temperament. We look at something called procedural fairness, which is how a judge treats people in court. Then we look at a number of objective standards, like judicial education, whether they’ve been subject to any discipline whether they meet time standards for cases that they take under advisement.”

The commission gathers information from surveys and courtroom observers.

“Surveys that we do of attorneys, court staff and jurors. All of whom who appear in the judge’s courtroom, so we weight our surveys so that they are with people who have experience with the judge. Then we also have volunteer courtroom observers all across the state who go into courtrooms, virtually every judge and watch how they treat people while they’re in court and submit that information to the commission.

Yim says that the system is unique to Utah.

“It’s not how it works in the rest of the country. It is a model for non-partisan merit-based retention and selection of judges so we have a system in the state of Utah that is touted as being a model system. We’ve had states contact us to look at shifting the way they do it or adding judicial performance evaluation. It gives voters a really important role in the process. They are the only ones who can allow a judge to serve another term of office.”

Although no judges have been voted out since the commission has started, Yim believes the commission has improved Utah’s judicial system.

“There are a number of different ways that our process works that probably aren’t immediately apparent to voters. One is that we do a confidential midterm. That gives the judge notice about their performance and gives them some time to improve their performance. That’s what we’re aiming for right? The best possible judiciary. The second thing, that I think is not as apparent to voters is that before judges make a decision about whether to run for retention election or not they have an opportunity to see their completed evaluation report. They sometimes chose in the face of a negative evaluation to resign or retire rather than run for that retention election. So when voters go to our website they see a lot of green retain buttons and recommendations. That’s partly because of those two things, that confidential midterm and then that advanced receipt of that retention evaluation before making a decision of whether to stand for the retention election.”

Yim encourages voters to use their website Judges.Utah.Gov as one source of information for learning about the judges that are on their ballot and encourage them to make an informed vote.