Commentary: Judges should not be judged on a few cases

Judge Christine Johnson speaks to the prosecuting attorney during Jerrod William Baum's special setting waiver hearing at the 4th District Court on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Provo.

Holly Richardson’s column criticizing Judge Christine Johnson for “lenient” sentencing of abusers is a good example of the challenges facing voters as they consider retaining judges. Because of their position, judges are not free in this context to defend themselves or personally answer charges made against them or their decisions.

In her column, Richardson cites six cases over a nine year period in which, in Richardson’s opinion, the sentences were too lenient. While I also cannot here address the specifics of any case, focusing on a limited number of cases in determining the retention of a judge disregards the judge’s work in other similar situations and in hundreds of cases overall in her career.

This is why the Utah Legislature established the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) in 2008. This commission consists of 13 members, including seven citizen members appointed by the governor, the Utah Supreme Court, the Utah House of Representatives and the Senate. No more than seven members can be attorneys.

The commission issues an evaluation based on not just six cases, but on the overall record of the judge. The commission receives information for its consideration from many lawyers, including prosecutors, who have appeared before each judge when they make their recommendations. Details of the evaluation process can be found at https://judges.utah.gov/process/. Voters should consider the evaluation process and the commission’s recommendations when determining judicial retentions.

Addressing the facts of even just a few cases, as Richardson does, is also challenging because there are undoubtedly a multitude of facts and considerations of which Richardson and others may not be aware. It is important to remember that judges operate within laws written by the Legislature and there are prosecutors present at each case with sentencing recommendations.

Further, when it comes to sentencing, judges are assisted by the Utah State Sentencing Commission. This organization consists of 27 members representing all facets of the criminal justice system and an at-large citizen representative. They are all citizens, and include defense and prosecuting attorneys, judges, legislators, police officers and treatment professionals. The commission establishes sentencing guidelines for specific crimes focusing on the severity of the crime, restitution to victims of crime and their families, managing risk to society and reducing risk by helping offenders develop skills needed to become productive members of society as far as may be possible. The judge also receives a detailed pre-sentence report prepared by Adult Probation and Parole and considers their recommendations in sentencing.

An independent judiciary is established by both the federal and the Utah constitutions and is to be as free from the politics of the other branches of government as possible. That independence is critical to ensure the best opportunity for justice to be achieved for all parties. Utah’s non-partisan retention process, which includes the judicial evaluation process described above, helps ensure judicial independence and is essential to protecting one of the country’s most respected judiciaries.

Voters should carefully consider the recommendations of the JPEC Commission before they vote to determine which judges to retain. Those recommendations can be found at https://judges.utah.gov.

H. Dickson Burton | Utah Bar Association

H. Dickson Burton is president of the Utah Bar Association.