New Utah judicial evaluations lead to same old results
The 13 members of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission spent the four years leading up to this month's election compiling the most information Utah voters have ever had on judges facing retention.
In the end, however, it appeared to matter little.
Each of the 26 judges on the ballot was retained with about 80 percent of the vote. And every judge who faced election six years ago came within 2 percentage points of the 2006 tally.
"There was two times the [voter] turnout and yet the same margins held across the board," Utah Court Administrator Daniel Becker told members of the Utah Judicial Council this week. "After all the expense and all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the results were about the same."
Joanne Slotnik, executive director of the evaluation commission (JPEC), said she knows why.
"The bottom line is not a whole lot of people saw the information we worked so hard to put out," Slotnik said.
Because of new legislation passed last year, 2012 was the first year the Lieutenant Governor's Office did not mail a voter information pamphlet to all the state's registered voters. Instead, voters received postcards asking them to request the pamphlet be mailed to their homes if they wanted one.
The Lieutenant Governor's Office sent out about 930,000 postcards. About 25,000 people returned the cards to request a pamphlet or called asking for one to be mailed to them, said Mark Thomas, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.
"I know they were quite upset over the process, but we don't have all the data yet," Thomas said of the JPEC members. The state has commissioned Utah State University to study the process and its effectiveness, he said.
The state did distribute about 75,000 pamphlets to libraries, colleges and state-owned retirement centers, Thomas said.
And the state's voter website vote.utah.gov saw 545,000 unique visitors, a 300 percent increase from 2010.
Still, only about 20,000 people accessed JPEC's information online, Slotnik said.
"There's not a whole lot of impact there," she said. "Hopefully it will build over time. It's a slow business."
JPEC relied on evaluations by attorneys, court employees, jurors and volunteer observers in recommending retention for all 26 judges on 2012 ballots.
Slotnik and other JPEC officials said they hoped the information, which focused on courtroom demeanor, knowledge of the law and other criteria, would be easier to digest than information in previous voter pamphlets.
"We just want people to make use of it," the commission's vice chairwoman Jennifer Yim said.
Since 2002, the voter information pamphlet has included survey scores from attorneys who have practiced before the judges up for retention, and from jurors who have sat for trials in those judges' courtrooms. The pamphlet also lists disciplinary sanctions against judges and whether they were certified for election by the Judicial Council.
JPEC was created in 2008, the result of a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who believed voters were not being served by the information pamphlets.
"There is not a clear window into judge misbehavior," Buttars said during a 2007 meeting of a Senate task force formed to study the value of the pamphlets.
The task force found there was little or no correlation between how Utahns voted for judges and the information provided in the pamphlet possibly because the pamphlet was far from user-friendly.
Task force members said that it appeared that bad election outcomes for judges were the result of grass-roots ouster campaigns and news stories, not from anything published in the pamphlet.
Absent any organized effort to unseat a judge, most judges are retained with about an 80 percent majority, the task force reported in 2007.