"Ever feel at a loss when you enter the voting booth and are asked to vote whether or not to retain a judge you know nothing about?
"Don't feel alone. Most voters have the same problem."The reason one does not hear as much about judges as opposed to political candidates is because a judge may not participate in partisan politics . . . "
So begins the two-page insert that judges had written and hoped to pass on to voters in the Utah Voter Information Pamphlet for Tuesday's election.
But a miscommunication between Deputy Lt. Gov. Dave Hansen and court administrators kept the courts from learning that the information would not appear in the booklet.
When it came time for the pamphlet to go to print in September, Hansen said he realized the law prohibited including the information about retaining judges and sent a letter to the courts informing them of the problem.
Michael Phillips with the court administrator's office said he never received the letter and didn't know until mid-October that the information had been excluded.
The omission is particularly disappointing because the courts have taken seriously their charge to inform the public about their judges, Phillips said. In 1985, a change in the state's constitution eliminated contested races for the bench. In exchange for allowing judges to remain detached from politics and campaign trappings that could compromise independence, the judiciary is required to inform the public about the competency of judges. Phillips said the courts will sponsor legislation to ensure the information will be included in next year's voters' handbook.
Many voters have phoned the courts and local talk shows asking, "What can you tell me about the judges on the ballot?" said Phillips.
During 1990, the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century has examined the public's perception of judges in determining the future of the justice system. Results show that Utahns want their judges to be more approachable, more service-oriented and more accountable.
In May, former Gov. Scott Matheson told commission members that the strength of the judiciary lies in the strength of its judges. Of the 50 judges he appointed, he said he was pleased with majority of them. But he advocated "housecleaning" ineffective judges from the bench.
Charged with policing itself, the Utah judiciary - for the first time in its history - created a judicial performance evaluation program, asking attorneys to rate judges. The results were first released in August. Based on the results, the Judicial Council voted to certify all 35 judges who filed for retention election this year.
"It's significant to note at least 70 percent of all the attorneys surveyed about each judge responded `yes' when asked if they would recommend that judge be retained for another six-year term," said Phillips.
Seven judges were rated below the 70 percent approval point in some areas of performance but were still recommended for retention. Those judges rated as needing improvement in three or more categories were all 3rd District judges: Homer Wilkinson, Kenneth Rigtrup and Pat B. Brian.
"People have a tendency to look at the `inconclusive scores' or those under 70 percent - but above 60 percent - as bad marks. But they really aren't. We set a very high standard by demanding a judge had to get 70 percent vote to be considered satisfactory," said Phillips.
The evaluation is a rigorous process that "all judges aren't necessarily happy with," he said.
"Some indicate it has a chilling affect on their independence. They ask if they have to be nice to attorneys who appear before them just so they will get a positive response next time that attorney fills out an evaluation. Judging judges is a sensitive balance between judicial independence, public accountability and the need of judges for self-improvement."
Judge Gregory Orme, Utah Court of Appeals, is vice chairman of the court's governing Judicial Council. He said the council has learned from its first effort at evaluating judges. In 1992, the evaluation will include a wider range of meaningful information.
But results indicate that overall, attorneys are extremely satisfied with the judges - all were recommended for retention. Even the handful who received lower than 70 percent but higher than 60 percent approval on specific areas should not be considered "bad judges." No judge on the ballot received an unsatisfactory rating, said Orme.
Voters may obtain the evaluation sheets of any judge seeking retention this election by calling Phillips at 533-6371.