April 2008 Bar Bulletin
Judicial Appointments Put Focus on Screening Process
By Raegen Rasnic and David Koch
A recent spate of appointments to the King County Superior Court bench has placed a renewed focus on what it takes to draw the governor’s attention to draw one of these plum posts.
The primary purpose of the King County Bar Association’s Judicial Screening Committee is to improve the judiciary by rating candidates for judicial office. While the committee is well known for its ratings in contested elections, members of the bar may be less familiar with the Committee’s other mandate — rating candidates for judicial appointment.
Washington has a long history of electing its judges. Often, however, appointments are necessary to fill vacancies when judges leave the bench prior to expiration of their terms. To assist the appointing authorities in selecting these judges for the King County superior, district and municipal courts, KCBA maintains a list of recommended candidates.
The process for rating these individuals is similar to that used for rating candidates in contested elections. By design, the current Committee is a diverse mix of 71 men and women of varying ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and areas of practice and experience. Sixty-four members are attorneys, including prosecutors, public defenders, commercial litigators, family law practitioners, personal injury attorneys, insurance defense lawyers, in-house counsel, appellate attorneys and others. The Committee also includes seven non-attorney members. Together, members work cooperatively to assess candidates in a fair, comprehensive and accurate manner.
The screening process consists of three parts. First, candidates fill out a 13-page questionnaire provided by the governor’s office and a five-page supplemental questionnaire provided by the KCBA.1 The questionnaires focus on such topics as educational background, professional history, judicial experience and participation in bar and community activities. Candidates also are asked about disciplinary matters.
Each candidate must provide contact information for more than 50 references, including opposing counsel, judges or other neutral decision makers in front of whom they have most recently appeared, those who have exercised supervisory authority over the candidate, and non-attorney references. Unlike questionnaires submitted by candidates for contested elections, questionnaires submitted solely for gubernatorial appointment remain confidential. They are not shared with the public.
A candidate’s submission of the questionnaires triggers the second part of the screening process. The KCBA schedules a candidate interview and contacts all Committee members. The first 16 to 18 members to volunteer comprise the panel that rates the candidate.
Each attorney on the panel then interviews five to seven references. To encourage candor, the interviewer assures the reference that his or her comments will be disclosed only to other panel members at the rating session. They are not disclosed to the candidate.
The interviewer uses a three-page questionnaire covering ethics, professional competence, demeanor and experience. The interviewer inquires into the reference’s experiences with and knowledge about the candidate and elicits opinions on the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as a potential member of the court the candidate seeks to join. Because a reference’s comments are never disclosed to a candidate, no candidate ever knows what information his or her references volunteered.
The third step in the process is the candidate interview and rating. The panel interviews each candidate for approximately 30 minutes. The candidate is invited to make opening and closing remarks. The balance of the interview consists of questions pertaining to the candidate’s qualifications for office and issues raised by reference checks or other information that the panel receives, including the candidate’s questionnaire answers. In certain rare cases, panel members discuss ahead of time any reference information that raises potential ethical or professional concerns and frame a question that will give the candidate a full and fair opportunity to address the issue.
After the candidate leaves the room, the panel members discuss the results of their reference checks and whether there is sufficient information to rate the candidate. If not, the panel places the candidate in the “Insufficient Information to Rate” category.
If it has sufficient information, the panel discusses whether the candidate meets the basic criteria set forth in KCBA’s Rules and Procedures, which govern the Committee and its rating process. The criteria include, among other things, intellectual honesty, fairness, good judgment, a demonstrated commitment to equal justice, legal ability, capacity for hard work and the potential for ongoing professional development. After the discussion, the panel votes by secret ballot.
A candidate who, in the panel majority’s view, does not meet the KCBA’s basic criteria receives a “Not Qualified” rating. If, however, a majority of the panel members finds the candidate meets those criteria, a “Qualified” rating is given.
Discussion then turns to whether the candidate should receive a “Well Qualified” rating, which requires an affirmative vote by two-thirds of the panel members. If less than two-thirds of the panel supports a Well Qualified rating, the candidate is rated Qualified. If a Well Qualified rating is merited, the discussion then turns to whether the candidate should be rated “Exceptionally Well Qualified.” This also requires a two-thirds majority. After the voting concludes, all sensitive materials pertaining to the candidate, including all reference check notes, are destroyed.
A candidate’s rating remains effective for three years. The KCBA informs the candidate in writing of the rating. It discloses the ratings of candidates seeking appointment only to the person empowered to appoint and only if the candidate is rated Well Qualified or Exceptionally Well Qualified. The names of candidates for whom insufficient information was received, or who were rated “Not Qualified,” are not disclosed.
Since 2005, the Committee has rated 55 candidates, 27 of whom were rated for possible appointment. Currently, the KCBA has a list of 17 recommended candidates and, in the past two years, Governor Gregoire has selected four individuals from the list to fill vacancies on the King County Superior Court.2
If you are interested in participating in the screening process, please contact Julie Gardner at 206-267-7013. Or, if you would simply like more information, please visit the KCBA Web site at www.kcba.org and select the heading for “Judicial.”
Raegen Rasnic is a partner at Skellenger Bender. She focuses her practice on family law, adoption and assisted reproduction, and the defense of medical and mental health professionals in licensing and disciplinary proceedings. She can be reached at 206-623-6501 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Koch is a partner at Nielsen, Broman & Koch. His practice emphasizes appeals in state and federal court. He can be reached at 206-623-2373 or by email at email@example.com.
1 Links to both questionnaires can be found at www.kcba.org. Just go to the “Judicial” tab and click on “Judicial Elections and Judge Ratings.”
2 Passing gubernatorial muster for a Superior Court appointment, however, requires more than obtaining a high rating from the Committee. Most of the county’s specialty bar associations also have their own screening processes and forward appointment recommendations to the governor for her consideration.