In regular intervals during Utah state elections, the public has the opportunity to vote on the retention of judges. There is very little media coverage or advertising, and none by judges themselves. Most people probably do not give it consideration until they reach the last few pages of their ballots. In this era of division, it might be tempting to vote “no” for all in an act of thoughtless defiance.
Let me suggest why this is a bad idea.
First, the selection of judges in Utah is merit based, and the process is intense. Applicants are scrutinized by the Judicial Nominating Commission whose members review qualifications and select candidates to interview. Those with the best qualifications are forwarded to the governor. The governor appoints one of the nominees who then must be confirmed by a majority of the Utah State Senate. In recent years, this process has created an incredible judiciary.
Second, the overwhelming majority of Utah’s judges get even better the more time they serve. If you or someone you love were involved in a civil or criminal matter, would you want a carefully curated judge with years of experience, or someone new to the bench? Further, experience has proven to increase efficiency, alleviating pressure on an already strained court system. We must retain these benefits if possible.
Third, Utah’s economic growth and quality of life have attracted some of the largest law firms in the world to Salt Lake City, exacerbating an already competitive environment for legal talent. The government simply cannot compete with the economic vitality of Utah’s legal community. Frequent and unnecessary turnover of our judges could lead to a less qualified applicant pool.
So, how can you make an informed decision about the judges you will find on your ballot next month? In 2008 the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission was created to provide unbiased, independent, data-driven recommendations to voters. The data comes from surveys returned by lawyers, court staff, jurors, public comment and anonymous courtroom observers who assess a judge’s legal ability, judicial integrity, administrative abilities and procedural fairness. Reports created by JPEC commissioners and staff can be found at judges.utah.gov.
The process to become and remain a judge is rigorous, and Utah has one of the best processes in the nation. Please take a few minutes to inform yourself of the important judicial retention vote in this year’s election. Vote “No” on the individual judges you think should leave the bench. This is a better strategy and will help continue Utah’s tradition of judicial excellence.
Blair Hodson serves on the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission and lives in Salt Lake City.