Judges hold an important and powerful position in our state, and most voters don't know enough about the people they are asked to
elect or retain in judgeships across the state.
The Kansas Judicial Council has a plan to help remedy that situation.
The Judicial Council is recommending legislation to create a Commission on Judicial Performance that would evaluate judges. The Judicial Council is a 10-member group that includes eight appointed judges or practicing attorneys along with the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. The new Commission on Judicial Performance would have 13 members appointed by the Judicial Council. There would be six lawyers, justices or judges and six non-lawyers in addition to the appointed chair, who would be a lawyer, justice or judge.
The commission would use information obtained through surveys of judges, attorneys, jurors, litigants, witnesses and social service personnel to evaluate the performance of judges. That information would be used in one of two ways depending on whether the judge being evaluated was appointed or elected.
In some parts of the state, judges are elected in partisan elections. Because the council thinks it is unwise for a state-funded performance evaluation to be used in a partisan election, evaluations of elected judges would not be made public. Instead, the feedback would be shared with judges in an effort to identify any areas in which they might improve their performance.
For appointed judges, who face a retention election every four years, the evaluation results would be shared with the voting public. This includes district judges in Douglas County and many other counties as well as the members of the Kansas Court of Appeals and Kansas Supreme Court.
Withholding the evaluations on elected judges is unfortunate, but understandable. However, if the evaluation system is approved, it also would seem to be an added incentive to standardize the state system and make all judgeships appointed. The appointment system is less political and less subject to outside influence and, under the evaluation system, voters would have access to more information about the judges on the ballot.
Although some judges in the state had previously advocated some sort of judicial evaluation system, the plan approved by the Judicial Council earlier this month seems at least partially designed to address concerns voiced by state legislators during the 2005 session. Unhappy with the Kansas Supreme Court's rulings that overturned the state's death penalty and declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional, some legislators said the Legislature should have some say in who is appointed to the state's highest court. A commission that is willing to fairly evaluate judges and point out judges who shouldn't be retained might allay some of the legislators' concerns.
The judicial appointment system in Kansas is not broken and doesn't need to be fixed. However, it will operate better if voters are better informed and more able to express educated opinions about which judges deserve to be retained in office. The Judicial Council's proposal helps facilitate that goal and warrants serious consideration during the upcoming legislative session.