When Utahns go to vote, they’ll start with the presidential race, the governor’s election and then local contests. After that is a long list asking the same question: Should a certain judge keep his or her job?
For most voters, it’s hard to tell which judges are worthy of their retention vote and which ones are not. That’s why Utah formed a group of experts, called the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC), to give the public recommendations. This year, just about every judge got a unanimous vote of approval.
One judge, however, didn’t score as well. The reason for that was a disciplinary action taken against Tooele Justice Court Judge John Dow last fall after he shared a video of a man’s scrotum in a group text with people who work for him.
How did JPEC’s experts respond? They voted 9-3 that voters should retain him, the lowest tally for any judge on the ballot this year.
Dow was given a public reprimand last September after the Utah Supreme Court found he violated judicial rules when he sent a “short, graphic video showing a man’s scrotum” to the Tooele Justice Court clerks.
Investigators later found that current and former clerks described an “unprofessional working environment,” and noted that Dow expressed disappointment that one of his employees “told on him.”
But the high court opted to reprimand, rather than suspend, Dow because the justices found he took responsibility for his actions, was apologetic and voluntarily took a “sensitivity training in the workplace” course, according to the court’s order.
Dow did not respond to a request for comment.
Jennifer Yim, JPEC’s executive director, couldn’t speak about specific cases but said the commission members make their vote after conducting performance evaluations with the judges and after considering “minimum performance standards.” They use surveys, courtroom observations, disciplinary history and public comments to determine their vote, Yim said, but can’t bring in their own personal experiences with a judge.
Yim said it’s pretty common for most judges on the ballots to receive a unanimous vote, because those who don’t get JPEC’s stamp of approval often opt to retire or resign. Same goes for some judges who have received mixed votes.
There’s only been one judge since the commission was created in 2008 who remained on the ballot after JPEC recommended that she not be retained.
The commission said in 2016 that 3rd District Judge Su Chon did not meet the minimum standard for legal ability and scored well below the average of her peers in other categories.
Chon “respectfully disagreed.” Utahns voted to keep her on as a judge, and she is still on the bench today.
Only one other judge on this year’s ballot didn’t receive a unanimous recommendation. Second District Juvenile Court Judge Jeffrey Noland received a 10-1 vote, but JPEC didn’t list any reason for the lone dissent. Noland’s report did note that he scored higher for being “disrespectful, impatient, indecisive and unprepared” compared to his judicial peers in the juvenile court.
Dow’s recommendation included an evaluation that indicated concern about his performance, pointing to the reprimand he received for sharing the inappropriate video.
A judge receiving any sort of public admonition for his or her conduct is also rare in Utah’s system. Only two other judges besides Dow have received any public discipline in the past five years, according to the Judicial Conduct Commission.
One was 6th District Juvenile Court Judge Brody Keisel, who received a public reprimand for having conversations with a social worker without informing the other parties in a case, which is a violation of the rules.
The other was the late Taylorsville Justice Court Judge Michael Kwan, who was suspended for six months without pay for making politically charged comments about President Donald Trump both from the bench and on his social media accounts. He also was publicly reprimanded in 2016 after he took on a public role with the OCA Asian Pacific Island American Advocates, which also violated judicial rules.
With Utah’s current system, voters decide whether to retain judges, but the governor is the one who appoints them to their positions originally. When there is a vacancy, the governor picks from a list of five nominees offered by an independent commission. That nominee is then subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
Most judges face a retention election every six years, while Utah Supreme Court justices are on the ballot every 10 years. It’s rare for voters to boot out a judge in a retention election.
Yim, with JPEC, said most Utahns don’t spend a lot of time in the courtroom, and might not have enough information when it comes to deciding whether to retain a judge. She urged people to visit judges.utah.gov to view the recommendations and evaluation reports to make an informed vote.
“We’ve seen this summer that people care about their justice system,” she said. “As well they should. Utah has a merit-based system that gives voters a really important role.”