Currently the performance of Utah's judges are reviewed by the Judicial Council, which is comprised of, you guessed it, other judges.
But a committee of lawmakers and judges have proposed taking that job away from the judiciary and placing it in the hands of a special committee of which no more than half its members can be attorneys.
For years state lawmakers have felt that the courts' judicial evaluation system was a bit too cozy with its judges. While judges are put up for non-contested election, the results of jury and attorney evaluations that are published to voters are enough to give anyone a headache.
These two issues prompted the Utah Legislature to commission the Judicial Retention Election Task Force in an effort to make judicial accountability more impartial and voter information easier to understand.
Members of the task force, which are comprised of lawmakers and judges, including Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, have struggled for months to come up with a solution.
The task force plans to present a draft bill next Wednesday to the Judiciary Interim Committee that proposes to create a 13-member Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, whose members cannot be sitting judges or members of the Legislature.
Specifically, two members would be appointed by the Senate president and two more by the speaker of the house. Four members would be chosen by the chief justice and four more by the governor. The last member will be the executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. What makes the commission unique, task force members say, is that no more than half of its members can be attorneys and no more than half of those appointing the members can come from the same political party.
The purpose of the commission is to make sure that all three branches of government are equally represented while doing its best to be removed from the political influence of each branch, said task force co-chairman Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield.
Oda said he felt the proposed commission would encounter less political influence than the current system. When asked if commission members would know enough about the justice system, Oda said state staff would have to give them training in the roles and responsibilities of judges.
Much like the Judicial Council, the commission would examine surveys from attorneys and jurors and give judges a pass or fail grade, which will then be published next to their profile in the voter guide.
The draft bill also proposes that court staff, witnesses in cases and litigants be surveyed to give input on a judge's performance.
The commission is modeled after a study conducted by the Colorado Judicial Institute, which bills itself as "one of the only independent and nonpartisan citizen's groups in the nation devoted to the excellence and independence of its state courts." The institute is headed by a former chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court.
Durham said she feels good about the makeup of the commission but added the process is ongoing and the bill has not been finalized.
The task force has yet to settle on a grading system the commission will use for judges. The current system says judges must receive 75 percent favorable marks on the surveys on a scale of one to five, where three is considered acceptable. Lawmakers have criticized that system as being too low of a hurdle where almost all judges pass.The task force plans to review evaluation systems from several states before reaching a decision and the final bill is presented to committees in the next legislative session.
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