August 2008 Bar Bulletin
From the Desk of the Executive Director
Judicial Ratings: A Critical KCBA Public Service
By Andrew Prazuch
With the August 19 statewide primary election just days away, many King County attorneys will begin to receive one persistent question from family, friends, and clients: "What judges should I vote for?!"
It's a perfectly natural question for a member of the bar to receive. After all, the vast majority of our citizens never have an official interaction with our judiciary (thankfully!). And it's human nature to ask people "in the know" for recommendations about life choices. Who's the best doctor? Ask someone in the medical profession. Where can I find the best steak in town? Ask someone in the restaurant industry. Is this contractor going to do a good job on repairs to my house? Ask someone who's worked with him before.
That said, when an attorney gets the standard "what judge should I vote for?" query, the inquirer probably assumes the attorney is in court every day like Perry Mason or Denny Crane. (Note my use of two different generational cultural references. Did you know that a third of KCBA members were born after 1965? More on that in a future column!) The reality is that the majority of attorneys, of course, don't spend the majority of their time in court either. So how does a conscientious attorney answer the "which judge do I vote for?" question in a responsible way?
Rely on your bar association.
Ratings at All Court Levels
The King County Bar Association has an outstanding judicial screening program that works year round to review the qualifications of potential members of the bench. Individuals seeking appointments (e.g., by the governor) or direct election to King County municipal, district or superior courts, as well as to the Division I Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court, are able to appear before the KCBA Judicial Screening Committee and seek the bar's rating.
Ratings for appointed positions are not made public by KCBA, so that the governor or local official making an appointment can consider the KCBA recommendation privately and weigh its value as he or she chooses. Ratings for contested elective positions, however, are made public by KCBA, so citizens can make an informed decision about whom they are choosing as a judge.
KCBA's Screening Process
The screening committee is made up of more than 70 individuals, including nine non-attorneys, all of whom have volunteered to participate in an exhaustive, deliberative and highly confidential review of each candidate. Currently co-chaired by David Koch and Raegen Rasnic, the committee generally begins the process when a prospective appointee or candidate seeking election notifies KCBA to obtain a rating.
The applicant submits a completed copy of the Governor's Uniform Judicial Evaluation Questionnaire, a 14-page document that requests, among many items, an exhaustive reporting of work experience (noting frequency of court appearances), a description of significant cases in which the applicant has participated, a detailed accounting of types of cases handled either in practice or on the bench, essay questions on judicial philosophy, and a listing on average of 50 professional references, including attorneys the applicant argued with and against, attorneys familiar with the applicant's professional background and abilities, and non-attorneys who might shed light on the applicant's career, especially those parts related to making the courts more sensitive to diversity issues.
KCBA also asks applicants to complete a supplemental questionnaire seeking additional references.
Reviewing this much information is a time-consuming, yet critical task if the bar is to offer a rating of the applicant's suitability to be a judge. Committee members spend hours in phone calls with references, group meetings to discuss findings, and conducting in-person interviews of each candidate before a final recommendation is made. The committee meets in person as frequently as once a week during the months leading up to a primary election, spending the entire day meeting with candidates and deliberating (on a busy day they can meet with up to four different candidates in a seven-hour period).
Types of Ratings Given
There are four possible ratings, beginning with "not qualified" or "qualified." A "not qualified" rating ends the process. If a candidate is rated "qualified," the committee takes a second vote as to whether the candidate is "well qualified." For applicants rated at that level, a final vote is taken to determine whether or not the applicant is "exceptionally well qualified."
The criteria for rating candidates are uniform and objective and have been used substantially in the same form for the past 25 years. These criteria measure an individual's suitability to serve in a judicial position. When applying the rating criteria, the Committee evaluates each candidate against the same criteria. There is no ranking of candidates or comparison of one candidate against another.
While a candidate for election may choose not to participate in KCBA's screening process, the Association's policy is to conduct a review of each candidate running for office in a contested election, regardless of their participation. We believe that rating each candidate is critical for this public service to be fair and useful to the electorate.
Once the process is complete, ratings are posted to the bar's website at www.kcba.org (under "What's New"). We also issue a press release to the news media, reminding them each election year of this service. Many newspaper editorial pages cite KCBA's ratings in their endorsement decisions.
In addition, KCBA has been actively involved in launching and continuing to support the non-partisan, statewide judicial election website, votingforjudges.org. This site contains links to KCBA's ratings for each candidate seeking election, as well as detailed financial disclosure filing reports, news coverage about the election, and very user-friendly tools for the public to monitor the judicial races in which they will be voting.
Achieving excellence in the administration of justice in King County and our state is one of the most important reasons that the King County Bar Association exists. I think we should all be proud of our bar's efforts to give voters a critical tool when they ask that perennial question about which judges to vote for. And while the bar doesn't endorse one candidate over another (and we often give the same rating to competing candidates), we can still provide a very helpful answer to those family, friends and clients: Use the KCBA's ratings as a fair, impartial and helpful tool in making such an important voter decision.
Andrew Prazuch is executive director of the King County Bar Association. He can be reached by email (email@example.com) or phone (206-267-7100 ext.7061).