On Utah’s 2014 ballot, voters will be “judging the judges”: voting whether to retain the judges that staff our state courts. Karen Peterson examines how we are judging the judges that run the third branch of government.
Most of us have heard of Matthew Durrant, Thomas Lee, and Christine Durham, all Utah Supreme Court Justices, but how many of use know Reuben Renstrom? Renstrom is the Justice Court Judge in Woods Cross. He appears on my ballot, but as I have not had any reason to go to court in a city at the other end of my county, or any reason to go to court at all, I have no idea if he should be retained as a judge.
It’s a rare day in Utah when a judge is not retained – one notable exception in the past 10 years was 3rd District Judge Leslie Lewis who angered hunting advocates with her treatment of an accused poacher. But in 2010, Justice Court Judge Ronald R. Hare was retained despite being on paid leave with allegations of disorderly conduct against him.
While I understand the importance of the separation of powers, that judges are often appointed by the executive and confirmed by the legislative, and that retention elections keep them from becoming beholden to those that appoint them – every year I feel extremely frustrated when I see the long list of judges on my ballot. It seems completely unreasonable. I have no practical experience with them, and there is little information for the lay voter to make an educated decision.
In an attempt to help voters, Utah established a Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC). This group has created a website with information on each judge appearing on the ballot. Judge profiles include votes on retention as well as information from attorneys, court staff, and jurors. They have made it easily searchable and accessible. I appreciate that it includes survey question results both on competency and professional demeanor.
I still find the process ridiculous and feel there must be more robust methods for informing voters, but until then I’ll use and appreciate the information available on the JPEC site.
To see Utah’s Judicial Performance Evaluation’s site visit: http://judges.utah.gov