These days, many Americans wonder about the stability of their government. Public trust and confidence in government is low across the board.
With respect to the third branch of government – the judiciary – 53% of U.S. adults disapprove of how the United States Supreme Court handles its job, according to an August poll conducted by the Annenberg Foundation. The same percentage also has little or no trust in SCOTUS to operate in the best interest of the American people. These ratings are historic lows and might reasonably cause us to question whether the judicial branch of government is at risk.
Fortunately, courts differ greatly across the nation. One consequential difference is the way states select and retain their judges.
As Gov. Spencer Cox recognizes, “Utah’s judicial system is a model for the nation. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court appointments, we select and retain judges based on merit and necessary skills, not on partisanship or campaigning. What’s more, we independently evaluate all judges’ performance and focus on improvement and accountability. Critically, Utah voters determine who continues to serve their communities through uncontested retention elections.”
Utah’s system of selecting and retaining judges based on merit is acknowledged nationally. Professor Jordan Singer of New England Law Boston, a consultant to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, a national organization based in Denver, agrees.
“Utah has a remarkably effective and trustworthy system for selecting, training, and maintaining the accountability of its judges. This was no accident. While other states may choose their judges through heavily politicized elections stained with dark money, or leave the fate of their citizens’ life, liberty, and property in the hands of inexperienced or unprofessional jurists, Utah selects judges from among the most qualified candidates, gives them focused feedback to improve their performance, and gives citizens the ultimate authority to retain a judge on the bench.”
We are extremely fortunate in Utah to have such a thoughtfully constructed system. It is one that gives voters the last say. Simply put, voters decide whether a Utah judge may continue to serve an additional term of office. Indeed, our judiciary’s quality depends, in part, on voters casting informed votes on judges.
Voters, though, may struggle to know enough about the judges on their ballot to be able to cast informed votes.
That’s where Utah’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) comes in. JPEC is an independent state government entity that is designed to evaluate the performance of judges for voters.
The commission provides assessments of a judge’s legal ability, administrative skills, integrity and judicial temperament, as well as how fairly a judge treats people in court. Evaluations include survey scores, courtroom observation results, and a variety of objective metrics to provide voters with information to help them make case-by-case decisions on how to vote on judges.
JPEC also produces evaluations of judges for judges to help them improve performance over time. Most judges fix any problems identified at midterm and perform much better at retention time. Judges also tend to leave the bench if they receive negative evaluations at retention time. Casting informed votes on judges is critical to a strong and independent judiciary because it is the main opportunity that voters have to hold their judges accountable.
“Utah’s judicial selection and evaluation system fosters public confidence in the judiciary” and “holds judges accountable the right way, by measuring what court users should expect from judges,” Singer concluded.
Voters can choose to learn a little or a lot about the judges on their ballot when they go to judges.utah.gov. By casting informed votes on judges, voters can be certain that they are contributing to the strength of our third branch of government during a time in our nation when voter input and informed participation are much needed.
Jennifer Yim is the executive director of the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation System. She lives in Salt Lake City.