While the presidential election campaigns have captured the attention of the nation and especially Utah voters, one of the least understood Election Day decisions for many in the Beehive State will be the judicial retention vote, where voters decide whether to retain currently serving judges.
To help voters make the decision, the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) provides a remarkable rating service that evaluates each sitting judge. Before mailing in your ballot or going to the polling station, voters would do well to take a minute and look up the judges in their area. Ratings can be found at www.judges.utah.gov.
Separate from the federal judiciary, states craft their own rules for selecting and retaining judges. This can be confusing for those who aren’t familiar with the differences.
Most Americans know that federal judges are nominated by the president and appointed with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, and serve for life.
The main difference in the Utah judicial system is that all judges must stand for a “retention” election, where citizens have the opportunity to decide whether or not they should remain in their office. The frequency of these retention elections depends on whether the judge sits on a state, justice, district, juvenile or supreme court bench.
Unlike most other elected officers, judges — by statute — run unopposed. The voters simply vote yes or no as to whether they should be retained. If the majority votes yes, they remain on the bench until the next scheduled retention election. If the vote is no, then their seat becomes vacant and is filled through the normal judicial selection process, which differs based on which bench is involved. The problem is in making an informed vote when many citizens are unfamiliar with the day-to-day performance of those on the bench. Enter JPEC.
As mentioned, JPEC is the organization in Utah that is charged with evaluating the performance of judges in the state and making those evaluations public. This year there are 19 district, 59 justice and 10 juvenile court seats up for retention votes in Utah. Except for a few who may have faced a judge in the courtroom, most of the names will be unfamiliar to citizens.
Charged with helping to inform voters, JPEC’s 13 members are appointed by representatives of the state executive, judicial and legislative branches of government. No more than seven of the members may be attorneys, thus maintaining strong representation by non-lawyer citizens. The JPEC website (www.judges.utah.gov) provides a complete list of judges in the state who are standing for retention in 2016. In each case, the evaluation report is attached for citizen review.
After a contentious presidential campaign like the one that is now coming to a close, it’s easy to understand the importance of why a judiciary should remain unmarred by partisan politicking. Utah’s judicial retention system instills trust in the bench while ensuring that judicial officers continue to answer to not only the law, but the citizenry they serve.
For these reasons, judges are selected and retained differently than other elected officials. Utah citizens are fortunate that the state has a nonpartisan method for evaluating judges and allowing the citizens an opportunity to decide whether or not they warrant being retained in their offices. Utah can be pleased that it is served by excellent judges who take their responsibilities seriously and serve the citizens of the state well. Voters, however, should use JPEC’s performance reviews of local judges and exercise an informed vote this election season.