Op-ed: How judges are selected in Utah
This year's Law Day theme, "American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters," may at first glance seem to have little to do with Utah's judiciary. Yet each voting cycle provides Utahns the opportunity to vote to retain their judges. You may notice that I used the word "retain" instead of "elect." That is because in Utah judges do not participate in partisan, contested elections, nor do they campaign to raise money, unlike judges in many states who spend millions of dollars to get elected. Utah's retention elections are designed to ensure that judges make decisions based on the rule of law and not based on campaign contributions.
The Judicial Article of the Utah Constitution mandates this "merit selection" process as the exclusive way of choosing state court judges. As stated in the Utah Constitution, "[s]election of judges shall be based solely upon consideration of fitness for office without regard to any partisan political consideration."
When a judicial vacancy arises in the appellate, district, or juvenile courts, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice advertises for applications. Those applications are submitted to a nominating commission whose members have been appointed by the governor. The commission is bipartisan and includes both lawyers and non-lawyers from the judicial district in which the appointment will be made. The commission solicits evaluations from lawyers and judges with whom applicants have had significant professional interactions, interviews the applicants, and makes at least five nominations to the governor. After interviewing each of the nominees, the governor selects one for appointment to the bench. The Senate then either confirms or rejects the appointment.
The selection process for Justice Court judges, who are not state court judges, is somewhat different. The Administrative Office of the Courts advertises the vacancy and then a local nominating commission evaluates the applications and makes recommendations to the mayor or chair of the county commission. The city council or full commission must then ratify the appointment.
At the end of each term of office, judges stand for retention elections. The initial term of office is defined as the first general election held three years after the judge's appointment. Subsequent terms are ten years for Supreme Court justices, and six years for appellate, district, juvenile, and justice court judges.
In 2008, the Utah Legislature established the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission to periodically evaluate the performance of Utah's judges. A midterm evaluation is aimed at self-improvement, while an end-of-term evaluation generates a recommendation for retention and information for voters at election time. These evaluations are available at http://www.judges.utah.gov. By visiting this website and voting in these retention elections, Utahns contribute to a process designed to ensure a strong, independent, and impartial judiciary. And an engaged and informed citizenry not only ensures stronger communities, but also helps make effective the important checks and balances that our founding fathers considered fundamental to an effective government.
Matthew B. Durrant is chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.