October 11, 2020

Voters can take advantage of state commission to vote on judges

Voters can take advantage of state commission to vote on judges
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By Turner Bitton

During general elections, most attention is paid to major races and presidential contests, and information about items that appear further down the ballot is often difficult to find. Judicial retention elections are one such example.

In retention elections, judges do not have opponents, nor do they campaign. Instead, voters decide whether or not a judge should remain in office. If a judge receives a simple majority of "yes" votes, the judge may serve another full term. If a judge receives a simple majority of “no” votes, the judge is removed from office at the end of the year.

Utah is one of fifteen states that use judicial retention elections, but that hasn’t always been the case. When statehood was granted in 1896, the state opted for a direct election of judges, a process that was changed in 1985 to the one that closely resembles the current system.

Today, bipartisan commissions exist in each of Utah’s judicial districts and when a vacancy arises, they begin the process of selecting a new judge for the vacancy. These commissions accept applications, conduct interviews, and assess the candidate based solely on merit. Utah law states that “…selection of judges shall be based solely upon consideration of fitness for office without regard to any partisan political consideration.”

After reviewing the candidates for the vacant position, the nominating commissions then select the top five (seven for Supreme Court vacancies) and forward those names onto the governor. The governor reviews the candidates and makes a selection from the list. After selection, the nominee must then be approved by the Utah State Senate prior to taking office.

After taking office, state law requires judges to face a judicial retention election in the first general election held at least three years after they take office. For example, a judge appointed in 2013, would face their first retention vote in 2016.

The year of their first retention vote then becomes the basis of future retention votes with the next election happening either six or ten years afterward depending on the judge’s position. Most judges in Utah face a retention election every six years. Members of the Utah Supreme Court are an exception to this, as they face retention votes every ten years.

Every few years, voters have the opportunity to vote in judicial retention elections. In 2008, to support voters’ ability to evaluate judges, the State of Utah established the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC). This independent agency uses a variety of criteria to evaluate the performance of Utah’s judges.

The committee is made up of thirteen members with four members appointed by the Utah Supreme Court and Governor, 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 serves on the JPEC. JPEC’s membership is restricted so that no more than seven members of JPEC may be practicing attorneys and no more than half the members appointed by each branch of government may be of the same political party.

JPEC looks at a variety of criteria including legal knowledge, skills as an administrator, integrity, and judicial temperament. Using surveys, courtroom observers, and other information, JPEC then creates a written report for use by the public to evaluate judges standing for retention. JPEC does not review misconduct allegations, as those are reviewed by a separate agency called the Judicial Conduct Commission.

According to JPEC Executive Director Jennifer Yim, the public reports are designed to provide voters with the information they need to evaluate the judges appearing on their ballots. “Utah’s judicial retention process works because JPEC engages judges in a term-long performance improvement process that is largely unknown to the public…The extensive work JPEC does with judges for the five years prior to the election – providing midterm feedback, doing courtroom observation, and collecting feedback from court participants – is all confidential by law, but it is critical to creating a strong, high-quality judiciary,” she said.

In the last decade, voters have chosen to retain every judge that has appeared on the ballot. Yim credits JPEC’s dedication to continuous improvement and robust process with the high retention rate, “92% of judges get unanimous recommendations in favor of retention because they pass all of the minimum performance standards required by statute. Most of the time, judges who have a negative performance evaluation, or a recommendation against retention, resign or retire.”

Yim encourages voters to take advantage of JPEC’s work to make an informed decision when voting. “Across the state, 60 judges will be on the ballot in November. Nineteen of those judges serve somewhere in Salt Lake County. For voters on Salt Lake’s west side, there will be 16 judges on the ballot. As many people know, judges affect the lives of citizens, sometimes dramatically. JPEC invites voters to visit judges.utah.gov to get to know your judges before you vote. Your voice matters. Our justice system depends on you.”

In October, West View Media hosted a live town hall conversation with Jennifer Yim, Executive Director of JPEC. To learn more about judicial performance reviews through JPEC, view the recorded conversation at https://www.facebook.com/WestViewMedia/videos/985474535298584/ and visit their website at judges.utah.gov.