Judging Procedural Fairness in Utah   Leave a comment

The Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission has posted its first formal evaluation of judges based on procedural-fairness criteria. The commission has evaluated the 25 Utah judges up for retention in the November 2012 election.

Utah is the first state to provide detailed evaluations of judges’ behavior in the courtroom based on procedural-fairness criteria. The Utah commission is required by law to provide a public evaluation of each judge up for retention, and the statute setting up the commission requires that its evaluations be based in part on observation of each judge in the courtroom. The commission adopted an administrative regulation providing for a corps of trained citizen volunteers who would observe each judge in the courtroom. Those administrative regulations also require that the judges be evaluated on procedural-fairness criteria: voice (e.g., whether the judge gave parties an adequate opportunity to be heard), neutrality (e.g., whether the judge displayed fairness and provided transparency in rulings), and respect (e.g., whether the judge demonstrated courtesy toward all who appeared before him or her). At least four different observers are used for each judge.

Through this program, Utah became the first state to evaluate judges specifically on procedural-fairness criteria. Two other states—Alaska and Colorado—have used courtroom observers as part of a judicial-evaluation program, but neither provided specific criteria for evaluating the judge’s adherence to procedural-fairness principles.

For the 25 judges up for retention this year, all were approved for retention, though three judges were approved with one dissent in 11-to-1 votes. In two of those cases, although the judges had positive ratings from attorneys, courtroom observers had raised some concerns and at least one courtroom observer had said that he or she would feel uncomfortable appearing in front of the judge.

Skeptics might suggest that when all 25 judges are approved for retention, the evaluation process isn’t meaningful. But there can be effects that are not obvious to us that occur over time in jurisdictions that do formal judicial evaluations: Judges who receive poor scores or would not be recommended for retention sometimes decide to retire or to return to practice rather than seek retention. In such cases, the draft evaluation or interim evaluation they have received does its job without requiring voters to act. (I have no idea whether this happened this year in Utah; I merely suggest that it does happen to some extent in jurisdictions with evaluation programs. But since evaluations are publicly released only for judges who stand for retention, there’s no public record from which we can determine how many judges voluntarily leave the bench based on negative evaluations.)

Adding courtroom observations focused on procedural-fairness criteria can be expected to improve judicial performance in this critical area. Utah’s efforts are to be commended.

For those wanting more information about the process in Utah, take a look at a recent article in the American Judges Association journal, Court Review, by Nicholas H. Woolf, a consultant to the Utah commission, and Jennifer MJ Yim, a commission member, or you can review a paper I presented to the Utah state judicial conference in September 2011.

Steve Leben

Posted September 13, 2012 by Steve Leben in Courts

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