Utah judges receive passing marks in new evaluations
Judge Kevin Allen is "relatively new" to the bench in Cache County, but attorneys and courtroom observers say he's shown progress and is "learning and growing in his role."
In southern Utah, 5th District Judge G. Michael Westfall is described as kind and very hard working, but with a "detailed style" that makes for slow-moving proceedings and long hours in court.
The Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission on Tuesday published evaluations for Allen, Westfall and 23 other jurists facing retention election this year marking the public debut of what officials believe is an improved system for judging Utah's judges."I think [the commission has] undertaken a heroic effort," said Presiding 3rd District Court Judge Royal Hansen, who is among the judges facing election. "I think the process has been very good. The information is helpful and it's in a form that's more user friendly for voters."
This year, judges have been evaluated by volunteer observers in addition to attorneys, court employees and jurors on their courtroom demeanor, knowledge of the law and other characteristics. JPEC officials said they hope the evaluations, available online at judges.utah.gov, will be easier to digest than the information provided in previous voter pamphlets.
The 13-member JPEC commission relying on the evaluations by attorney, court employees and volunteer observers recommended retention for every judge who will be on a ballot in November.
"We had a really strong group of judges," JPEC executive director Joanne Slotnik said in an interview last week.
Just three of the judges received a single vote from commissioners against retention: 4th District Judge Christine Johnson; Summit County Justice Court Judge Shauna Kerr; and 5th District Judge Eric Ludlow.
While more than 90 percent of attorneys said they would vote for Johnson's retention, courtroom observers said the judge started court late, recessed abruptly without explanation and had a casual atmosphere in the courtroom. "Three of these observers said they would not feel comfortable appearing before Judge Johnson," the commission wrote.
Kerr, who was appointed to the court in 2009, was praised by attorneys as someone who is "working hard to become fully skilled as a judge and is growing increasingly competent in her position," but was penalized for failing to meet minimum performance standards in issuing timely opinions.
Ninety-five percent of attorneys and court staff recommended retention for Ludlow, who has served as a judge since July 2003. Still, "some survey respondents perceived a lack of diligence in Judge Ludlow's work habits," according to the evaluation.
Most of the negative marks seem to come from the courtroom observers, volunteers with no legal backgrounds who have received training from the commission.
"I think it's a work in progress," Hansen said. "There's no job description for being a court observer. They've been trained and over time they're going to be more effective and more discriminating to what matters and what doesn't matter."
Just three of the judges received retention recommendations tallying less than 85 percent of the attorneys and court employees who responded to the surveys: 2nd District Judge David Connors; 3rd District Juvenile Judge C. Dane Nolan; and 3rd District Court Judge Anthony Quinn.