Commentary: Utah has a way for voters to research their judges

(Eli Lucero | Pool photo) Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, center, asks a question as Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee, left, and Justice Deno Himonas listen, during the oral arguments of State v. Van Huizen on Monday, March 19, 2018, in Logan. The Utah Supreme Court traveled to Utah State University to hear arguments in two cases followed by a Q&A with those in attendance.

The Kavanaugh hearings raise a timely and important question for Utah voters. Timely, because ballots are now being mailed out across the state. And important, because every Utah voter has the opportunity to vote yay or nay on each judge on the ballot.

What makes a good judge?

This central question leads to others. Is legal ability the only important characteristic? Or the most important one? Are other characteristics equally vital to good judging? And who gets to weigh in on these issues?

Emotions flared especially high in the recent hearings because United States Supreme Court Justices receive lifetime appointments to their positions. That goes for all federal trial and appeals court judges as well. Once they’re in, they’re in for life.

Not so in Utah. Here, judicial applicants go through a screening known as “merit selection” that leads from citizen nominating commissions to the governor’s appointment to Senate confirmation. Every six years (10 for Utah Supreme Court justices), each judge’s name appears on the ballot. We, the people, must determine if judges should get another term.

But how can voters decide when most have never seen the inside of a courtroom except on television?

We’re fortunate in Utah to have the legwork done for us by the non-partisan Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC). This commission, created by state law, has developed a careful process to evaluate judges and recommend whether each judge should get another term of office. You can review these reports at judges.utah.gov

Judge Kavanaugh and his Senate questioners, no matter what the subject, kept returning to Kavanaugh’s academic achievements and legal expertise. Here in Utah, judicial candidates are certainly evaluated on their legal ability. But the evaluation goes far beyond what we saw in the recent hearings. Utah gives equal weight to the integrity and judicial temperament of its judges as well as to their administrative skills.

Utah also considers whether a judge demonstrates “procedural fairness” in the courtroom. When parties to a dispute feel that they have been treated fairly by a judge (or any decision maker, from parents to bosses), they are more likely to accept the results. People tell researchers this is true even when the outcome isn’t what they wanted.

The Kavanaugh confirmation provides a good example. Did the Senate Judiciary Committee act in ways that all parties would perceive as fair, regardless of outcome? The bitter aftermath would indicate that it did not. By adopting procedural fairness as an evaluative measure, Utah has set a high bar for its judges, but one that most judges easily meet.

For me, one of the takeaways from the Kavanaugh hearings is a new appreciation for Utah’s smart, careful and fair process for selecting and retaining judges. Our state constitution specifically prohibits “partisan political consideration” from entering the process. We should be grateful for this system. As citizens and voters, we should all take the responsibility seriously to review each judge’s evaluation and decide for ourselves which qualities in a judge we value most.

Joanne Slotnik

Joanne Slotnik served as the first executive director of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commssion. After retiring, she co-founded Salt Lake Indivisible.