Judging the judges

Appointees work on evaluations for those on the bench

Who are those guys?

That is often the reaction when voters look at their ballots on election day and see they have to decide whether to “retain” a judge.

A new process for evaluating Kansas judges and justices has been created to help make voters more knowledgeable about their effectiveness. It also is designed to help judges improve their own performances.

“The public’s expectation of the judiciary will be enhanced because they will know the individual,” said former Kansas Supreme Court Justice Fred Six. “It’s not just somebody up there in a black robe deciding this or that.”

Six, a Lawrence resident, is one of 13 people appointed in 2006 to the Kansas Commission on Judicial Performance. The Commission, appointed by the Kansas Judicial Council, consists of six non-lawyers and six others who can be lawyers or current or retired judges or justices. The chairman must be a lawyer or a judge.

The commission has developed a series of survey questionnaires that will be completed by a wide range of people who have directly observed a judge or justice. They include law enforcement officers, attorneys and court workers.

Those surveys will be tabulated and used to write an evaluation that will be released to the public if a judge is up for retainment. The surveys and evaluations will be an ongoing process.

Before an election, the evaluation will be released through the media and other sources.

Judges will receive the evaluation before it is made public and be given a chance to respond before the commission.

The evaluations will help make the public more aware of the qualities a good judge should have, Six said. Those qualities include integrity, courtesy, diligence and scholarship, he said.

“The public will have a valuable source of information from a neutral body,” Six said. “The judges themselves will now be more attentive knowing they will be evaluated.”

Some counties have partisan elections for their judges. The Commission will focus in 2008 on elections that involve retention of judges.

Douglas County has the retention form of voting on judges. When a judge position is open, county commissioners appoint lay people to serve on a selection committee along with representatives selected by the Douglas County Bar Association. A Supreme Court justice also is on the committee as a non-voting member. The committee interviews judge applicants and then forwards two or three names to the governor who makes the final selection. In future elections, the public then votes on whether to retain the judge.

The Commission and the evaluation process will help keep the judiciary “transparent,” Six said. It also keeps the judiciary independent and leads to improvement, he said.

“Judicial independence, in my view, is the dominant thread in our judicial fabric,” Six said. “If you unravel that thread, then you expose the citizens of the county to the chilling winds of justice for sale.”

The formation of the commission in 2006 stemmed from 2004 legislation introduced by state Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. The commission has studied the evaluation processes of other states in establishing the Kansas version.