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New evaluations size up Utah judges facing retention

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 11 2012 6:08 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Results from evaluations conducted on 26 of the state's judges were made available to the public Tuesday.

The evaluations were done by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission and focused on the judges who are up for retention election in November. They were completed through surveys of attorneys, jurors and court staff.

Each evaluation features a summary of how each judge fared, including the results of a vote polling the commission itself. Joanne Slotnik, executive director of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, said the group hopes the results will be useful for voters and judges alike.

"The goal is to make the judiciary the very best judiciary we can have," Slotnik said. "We already have very high quality judges, the question is how do you make them better? The goal is to give them useful information so they can look at themselves and see where they may be lacking."

Providing helpful, easy to access information to voters is the other part of that. The reports can be found by either searching for specific judges or by counties, in case voters aren't sure which judges in their area are up for retention election this year.

"We're trying to make the information as user-friendly as possible," Slotnik said.

The impetus for the evaluations and reports was legislation passed in 2008 that called for these types of evaluations to help voters and judges while also fostering judiciary accountability to the public. Slotnik said it has taken until now to design the survey and collect the information.

Judges were evaluated on such categories as their legal ability, judicial temperament, integrity, communication skills and administrative skills. Detailed notes and observations are also included in the reports. The number of attorneys, court staff and jurors that were surveyed varied from judge to judge.

It is anticipated similar evaluations will be prepared and available every general election year.

Of the 26 judges evaluated this year, only three had any votes against their retention. Still, 4th District Judge Christine Johnson, Summit County Justice Court Judge Shauna Kerr and 5th District Court Judge Eric Ludlow each received overwhelming majorities in favor of retention in the commission vote, as they all tallied 11-1 recommendations for retention. All other judges received 12-0 tallies recommending retention.

Summaries of how attorneys, court staff and jurors viewed the judges and their eligibility for retention were included as well. These were also predominantly positive. The lowest percentage of attorneys who recommended retention was 83 percent for 3rd District Juvenile Judge Dane Nolan. Only one judge received 100 percent retention approval from attorneys, 1st District Juvenile Judge Jeffrey Burbank.

Slotnik pointed to an entry on the commission's website as an explanation for the high scores. The entry explains that judges undergo a long, rigorous process before they are appointed.

"You're looking at a high-achieving group of attorneys, people who have come to the judiciary from successful legal careers and who are striving to do still more," the entry reads.

Still, evaluations and surveys are important because they hold judges accountable and provide information to voters. Slotnik said the commission is made up of 13 volunteer members, half of whom are attorneys and half who are not, who spent an "enormous number of hours on the project."

"We'll have to see how the public responds to it and if we need to tweak the system in some way, we will," Slotnik said.

The results as well as more information about the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission are available online at judges.utah.gov.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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