Editorial: Judging judges

An independent group has taken over the job of helping Kansas voters evaluate whether members of the state’s appellate courts should be retained.

You know it’s a contentious election year when even the retention of Kansas Supreme Court justices is making the news.

Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen are under fire because of the court’s July decision to vacate, because of procedural errors, the death sentences of Jonathan and Reginald Carr, who were convicted in a grisly 2000 Wichita murder case. Although the brothers still face life sentences and the state is appealing the Supreme Court ruling, members of the victims’ families and the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party are urging Kansans to vote against retaining Rosen and Johnson on the court. They are just two of six justices who voted to vacate the sentences, but they are the only ones facing a retention vote this year.

The publicity this effort is receiving calls attention to how little most Kansas voters know about the state’s judicial retention process or the state and local judges that appear on their ballots every two years. Most voters probably also are unaware of an important resource that provides some information on the performance of Kansas appellate judges that could help guide their decisions.

After being appointed by the governor, Supreme Court justices face a retention vote every six years and Court of Appeals judges every four years. To help voters cast informed votes on retention, the Legislature created, in 2006, the Kansas Commission on Judicial Performance and charged the group with evaluating appellate and district court judges and providing recommendations on whether those judges should be retained. After performing that duty for elections in 2010 and 2012, the commission was defunded by the Legislature and discontinued its work.

However, a coalition of Kansans concerned about preserving impartial Kansas courts and providing information to voters decided to create the Kansas Judicial Evaluation Committee to continue the work of evaluating judges. Because its resources were limited, the new committee, which includes Kansas attorneys, law professors, court professionals and other representatives, has concentrated its efforts on evaluating members of the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Court of Appeals.

The evaluations, which are available at www.kansasjudgereview.org are based on surveys completed by attorneys, fellow judges, law professors and other legal experts. This year, 1,185 attorneys and judges completed the survey and expressed their opinion on whether the two Supreme Court justices and eight members of the Court of Appeals whose names appear on this year’s ballots should be retained.

The retention of judges rarely makes the news, and, when it does, it usually involves a drive, like this year’s, based on a single case, rather than on a judge’s overall performance. Thankfully, most Kansas voters don’t have enough experiences with judges to make an informed decision about whether they should be retained. The guide created by the Kansas Judicial Evaluation Committee provides some feedback from legal professionals who have that experience and knowledge. It isn’t a comprehensive review, but it’s a start for voters seeking some guidance on judicial retention votes.