People have many excuses for not voting. Maybe you know someone who will vote differently and cancel your vote. Sometimes you haven’t had time to study the candidates. I’ve often wondered if my vote could make a difference, and since I’ve cast some uninformed votes at times, I thought maybe it was a good thing if it didn’t.
For years I voted no on retaining judges because I had no idea who the judges were and it seemed safer to try to impose a term limit. That changed after I learned about the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) from a friend.
JPEC was established by Utah law in 2008 to collect and share information about judges’ performance. It’s a partisan-balanced, independent government body with a small staff and volunteer commissioners. Their reports not only help voters decide whether to retain the judges, they also provide feedback to the judges to help them improve.
I am now a volunteer courtroom observer for JPEC. I travel around the state, sit in courtrooms and watch what transpires. Then I write reports on whether judges listen and treat people with respect, how they explain their decisions, and if they appear impartial. I’ve seen some pretty amazing things. I do it because I believe evaluating judges based on their actions in the courtroom will make a difference. Information from courtroom observers, juror surveys, and input from attorneys and court staff are all included in reports by JPEC. You no longer have to hope the judges in your local courtrooms are doing a good job and treating people fairly. You can find out for yourself.
Our Utah Constitution states: “Selection of judges shall be based solely upon consideration of fitness for office without regard to any partisan political consideration.” Utah selects its state court judges through a process called merit selection. Once appointed, a judge serves for a minimum of three years until the first general election following their appointment. That’s when we voters decide if they should continue. After that, state and justice court judges only face a retention election every six years, while Supreme Court justices are voted on every 10 years. It’s important that voters make an informed choice each time they have the opportunity to vote to retain a judge. You don’t have to accept the JPEC recommendation because the collected information is online at judges.utah.gov, and you can make your own determination. Voters are the only ones who decide if a judge on their ballot is retained.
While the majority of judges on the ballot will have a JPEC recommendation for retention based on minimum performance standards, this is far from a rubber stamp of approval. Judges who do not receive a recommendation for retention often choose to resign or retire, and their reports remain confidential. The judiciary becomes stronger as a result. For judges who seek to continue, it’s a simple yes or no vote on your ballot.
You or someone you care about will likely be in a courtroom at some point. Let’s make sure our judges treat people the way you’d want to be treated. Visit judges.utah.gov, select your county, and in November you’ll be prepared to cast an informed vote.
Lynell Gardner, MPA, worked in higher education administration at both the University of Utah and Weber State University. She now lives and volunteers in Cache Valley.