March 2016 Bar Bulletin
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March 2016 Bar Bulletin

Survey Results Rate Judges,Commissioners

By Carl Forsberg

 

The quadrennial Superior Court Judicial Officer Survey of attorneys appearing in King County Superior Court and before King County commissioners was released on February 10. Respondents provided positive evaluations to the majority of judges and commissioners serving in King County Superior Court. A summary of the survey appears on pages 16 and 17 of this issue; the complete survey is available online at www.kcba.org/judicialsurvey.

The King County Bar Association has conducted and published surveys and evaluations of judicial officers since 1948. The survey results are a summary of practicing attorneys’ assessments of the judges and commissioners who hear and decide their cases. The survey provides information to the public prior to judicial elections by presenting assessments of each judge so that voters can make informed decisions by taking into account the collective assessments of those lawyers who practice in front of these judicial officers. These surveys and evaluations also provide important information to the public, the bar and the bench on performance of the local judicial branch as a whole.

Every four years this survey is conducted of attorneys appearing in King County Superior Court. The last Superior Court judicial survey was published in 2012. In addition, on an alternate four-year cycle, KCBA publishes a similar survey for the courts of limited jurisdiction. The most recent courts of limited jurisdiction survey was published in 2014; the next one will be released in 2018.

King County Superior Court is a general jurisdiction trial court with responsibility for civil matters involving more than $300, unlawful detainers and injunctions; felony criminal cases; misdemeanor criminal cases not otherwise provided for by law; family law, including dissolutions, child support, adoptions, parentage, and domestic violence protection matters; probate and guardianship matters; juvenile offender matters; juvenile dependencies, including abused and neglected children, children in need of services, at-risk youth and truancies; and mental illness and involuntary commitment matters.

In 2014, a total of 52,224 cases were filed in King County Superior Court, which included 2,157 trials. All 53 judges are elected to four-year terms each presidential election year. In addition, 12 court-appointed commissioners serve as judicial officers.

It is important to not confuse this survey with a rigorous, scientific, opinion-
gathering process. This survey reflects the opinions of those attorneys who appeared before these judges and chose to respond to the survey. This is the collective report from these attorneys; nothing more, nothing less. These opinions have value, but they must be considered along with KCBA’s judicial candidate ratings, judicial candidate debates and other efforts the bar makes to offer as complete a picture of judicial performance as it can.

While the results are not scientific, KCBA makes every effort to conduct the best survey possible. Improvements to the past survey process were recently made, including the creation of a strong oversight committee of prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys and retired judges, as well as additional controls on data confidentiality. A full report of these improvements was outlined in the June 2013 Bar Bulletin.

The 2016 survey was conducted on all 53 judges and 12 commissioners serving in King County Superior Court. The survey was conducted from November to January. Survey development methods were similar to those used by KCBA since 2007. However, the survey administration was conducted in a different manner from that used in the past; a single online survey was used instead of a separate survey for each judge.

An important component of any judicial evaluation program is to obtain information from individuals who have had an opportunity to personally observe the judge during the relevant time period. Accordingly, rather than attempt to survey all members of KCBA or all lawyers practicing in King County, only attorneys who were identified as having appeared before any of the 53 judges and 12 commissioners were invited to participate in the survey.

Attorneys were provided “pre-
populated” surveys for those judges whom they have appeared before in the last four years and, if they had appearances that were not listed in their pre-populated list, they were instructed to evaluate only those additional judges before whom they had appeared at least once in the past four years.

Attorneys were identified by several means. First, a report of all attorneys and their appearances at trials, hearings, and other in-court proceedings in the relevant courts during the previous four years was generated by the Superior Court Clerk’s Office. From this database of nearly a half million records, a unique list of attorneys with a recorded appearance before any of the judges to be evaluated was generated. Any attorney who had subsequently become a judge in one of the courts being evaluated was eliminated from the distribution list.

Second, King County attorneys were alerted via email about the survey. Finally, a notice about the survey was included in the Bar Bulletin in November. Any attorney who was omitted in error from the pre-populated list was instructed to email KCBA to request a survey invitation. The invitation list was checked for duplicates before invitations were sent.

KCBA provided the survey to more than 8,400 recipients; 1,388 attorneys completed the survey, which represents a 16-percent response rate. Four completed surveys were eliminated due to a negative response to the pre-survey certification questions. There were 547 completed surveys for Superior Court commissioners.

Judges and commissioners’ response numbers included in the analysis ranged from a low of 20 to a high of 399 evaluations. A total of 64 judges and commissioners had at least 21 respondents evaluate them and more than half the judges and commissioners were evaluated by more than 105 respondents. The average and median numbers of responses per judge and commissioner (among those with more than 20 respondents) were 112.75 and 104.5, respectively. These figures are sufficiently high so as not to indicate unreliability.


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