When the Utah Legislature created the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission in 2008, I was invited to serve as a commissioner. The purpose of the commission is to evaluate the performance of Utah judges to give voters the information they deserve for judicial elections.
You can find evaluation reports on all judges who will be on this year's ballot at http://www.judges.utah.gov.
I felt honored by the invitation to serve on the commission, but was also nervous. I am not a lawyer. For a dozen years, I have been mostly a stay-at-home parent. I once worked for the courts and volunteered as a Youth Parole Authority member, but for years after my children arrived, I limited my involvement.
Would the attorneys and retired judges on JPEC take me seriously? Would I have anything to contribute?
The answer to my first question is clear. I have learned from experience that JPEC not only takes its non-lawyers (as we are called) seriously, but also benefits from their equal participation. By statute, nearly half of the commissioners are not law-trained. We are all different, but we each bring an important outsider perspective.
As commissioners, we have emphasized collaboration. We pay attention to experience and ideas rather than rank or titles. We practice civility and make decisions only as a full commission. More than anything else, we spend hour upon hour listening carefully to one another. Collaboration as equals makes our work better.
The answer to the second question whether I had anything to contribute is less clear because of JPEC's collaborative culture and because our evaluations still must stand the test of time. One contribution I have tried to make is to include Utah residents in our work. I have supported the surveying of multiple respondent groups, including jurors.
Those who serve as jurors fill a valuable role in the justice system. They should be asked about their experiences with judges. I also believe that JPEC's courtroom observation program, which puts non-law-trained observers into courtrooms across the state, helps commissioners and the public to understand how judges treat people in their courts.
Our focus on how judges treat people is the part of JPEC's work that I especially like. Research shows that people want to be treated respectfully, to have a say in their court hearings, and to have their case heard by a neutral and trustworthy judge. Incorporating these real concerns into judicial evaluations certainly makes sense. Now, in addition to evaluating qualities like legal ability, JPEC evaluates how fairly judges treat people an idea called procedural fairness.
The justice system can be intimidating. It can feel like a closed system, seemingly open only to those with financial means or legal training. It is easy to imagine that JPEC could be simply an exercise that works to keep those with power in power. This was not the Legislature's intent in creating JPEC, nor is it consistent with my experience.
I have found JPEC commissioners to be intelligent, thoughtful and trustworthy. We share a commitment to two things: the importance of the justice system to good governance, and the value of an independent commission to conduct fair judicial evaluations. In my non-lawyer's mind, JPEC reports should help each of us to make informed decisions about whether judges have performed poorly and should be removed from the bench, or have provided strong judicial service and should be retained with our gratitude.
Utahns deserve to know the difference.
Jennifer MJ Yim is the vice chairperson of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.