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'Simpsons approach' urged for voter guide

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16 2007 12:33 a.m. MDT

If Homer Simpson were a Utah voter, the voter information provided about judges would be enough to have him yank out his remaining two hairs in frustration and shout, "Doh!"

In fact, some lawmakers say the section on judicial retention elections in the voter information pamphlet has been compared to reading through the IRS tax code.

For those who haven't seen it, the section includes the name and a brief bio on each judge. In a spreadsheet format are the results of two 15-question surveys from attorneys who appear before a judge and from jurors who serve in their court. Each question has a number, and voters need to flip to the front of the booklet in order to find the key that contains the text. Flipping back and forth comparing questions to numbers, plus result percentages, quickly becomes a dizzying blur.

Lawmakers, with the help of court officials, now say that section of the voter guide needs to be scrapped and a "Simpsons approach" needs to be taken to help better inform voters about a judge's performance. A statistical study of voters in judicial retention elections shows that few appear to use the complex section in the voter guide to make a decision.

Fortunately for Utah's judges, the vast majority of voters choose to retain them unless an organized campaign singles one out, as in the case of 3rd District Judge Leslie Lewis.

State Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, co-chairman of the Judicial Retention Election Task Force, said voters he's talked to can barely figure out the survey results, let alone understand the questions in the survey.

During the task force meeting Tuesday, one legislative staffer admitted he and his wife studied the profiles of a few of the 62 judges up for retention election last year. After some intense study, the staff member said he and his wife found one judge whose performance appeared sub-par, but once at the voting booth his wife admitted to him that she forgot which judge it was.

Short of having a law degree or a degree in statistics, Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, said the pamphlet is just too confusing for the average voter and that a "Simpsons approach" should be taken to simplify the information.

"I don't think the public has a clue" who judges are or how they are evaluated, Buttars said.

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, who is also a member of the task force, cautioned about cutting out pertinent information on how judges are evaluated.

Unlike other elected officials, whose performance is gauged on their stance on political issues and their voting record, judges are gauged more on how unbiased, balanced and professional they are. District and appeals judges in Utah run for uncontested retention election at the end of their six-year terms.

It's not a matter of how a judge rules on a case but how fair and professional they are, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. "Sometimes being a very good judge isn't making everyone happy," Hillyard said.

On Tuesday, the task force voted unanimously to start a work group of lawmakers, court officials and perhaps a marketing professional to completely re-do the voter information section on judges. The results could be finished for a review during the next task force meeting on Oct. 1.

Rep. Roz McGee, D-Salt Lake, suggested that perhaps the problem with informing voters had more to do with a need for better civics education in public schools.


E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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