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McEntee: OK, voters, what's your verdict on Utah judges?

Published October 29, 2012 4:30 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Election ballots don't just carry politicians' names. Utah voters also are being asked to judge their judges.

This year, there are comprehensive tools to use for both — the Voters' Guide by the Utah League of Women Voters, and the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission's website, http://www.judges.utah.gov.

I've written about the Voters' Guide website — http://www.lwvutah.org/votersguide — and the valuable information it contains about not only candidates, but also two proposed amendments to the Utah Constitution.

On the judicial site, attorneys and court staffers were asked about judges' legal ability, temperament, integrity and communication and administrative skills to help voters determine whether to retain these jurists.

What distinguishes Utah from other states is the commission's recruitment of volunteer courtroom observers who provide an interested outsiders' view of how a judge runs a court.

It's a cadre of about 40 or 50 people, mostly retired, well-educated and with a keen interest in what's happening in the world, says Anthony Schofield, a retired district judge and chairman of the commission.

All underwent 40 hours of training, met with current or former judges and other observers. They also were screened to ensure neutrality. Bias is not tolerated.

"We don't want an agenda," Schofield says. "We ended up with a pool of diligent, thoughtful people."

It's an entirely sensible idea, because outsiders often can see things that elude professionals who spend their days in court.

In one review, observers noted that a juvenile court judge could talk easily with the kid in front of her, even when telling him to get rid of the gum he's chewing.

That judge also gave juveniles and their parents respect and encouragement. She praised kids who had succeeded in getting past their misdeeds, "calling many to the bench for candy and inviting applause."

Attorneys, meanwhile, were asked nearly 30 questions, ranging from how judges follow legal precedent to whether they weigh linguistic and/or cultural differences of those who appear before them.

Lawyers and court staffers graded judges by adjective: Attentive? Receptive? Cantankerous? Flippant?

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of attorneys would ding a judge on the "cantankerous" or "flippant" adjectives, while court staffers did not.

All the assessments are vital to analyzing a judge, who controls pretty much everything but the jury's verdict, particularly for plaintiffs or defendants.

In Utah, all judges — municipal, state, appellate and Supreme Court — are evaluated, and many will appear on a ballot every two years. This year there are 25; in 2014, there will be about 50, Schofield says.

Few if any will have trouble staying on the job. In recent memory, only two state court judges and one justice court judge have been voted out.

This election, Utah voters will have the tools to analyze the people who appear on the ballot. Those two websites help ensure that. Every voter should take advantage of them.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @pegmcentee.