If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, KCBA's Judicial Officer Evaluation program should be blushing at the compliment coming its way.
First some history. In his February 2007 Bar Bulletin column, then-KCBA President John Ruhl reminded readers that KCBA had long worked to promote judicial accountability, in part through a "bar poll" evaluating the performance of King County judges of the superior, district and municipal courts. While well intentioned, the reliability of those bar polls was regularly questioned.
As a result, Ruhl said that at the 2006 KCBA Bench-Bar Conference, "an innovative proposal for a new kind of judicial performance evaluation program was presented by Professor David C. Brody of Washington State University." He noted that the program was based upon a judicial performance evaluation (JPE) program that was pilot tested in 2001 for the American Judicature Society.
Following the Bench-Bar Conference, representatives of KCBA and the King County Superior Court continued discussions about implementing the JPE proposal. The program was ultimately approved by the KCBA Board of Trustees and was launched in the fall of 2007 as the replacement for the traditional Superior Court bar poll.
The JPE program has been an important part of KCBA's efforts to strengthen the courts in King County and to provide voters with information about the performance of sitting judges. Although KCBA contracts with an independent researcher to assist with each evaluation, it is a big undertaking to send out thousands of surveys, compile the responses and tabulate the data before they are released.
Fast forward to 2015. The Honorable John Ruhl is now a King County Superior Court judge. However, he, along with a dedicated group of proponents, continues to advocate for programs to enhance the performance of the bench. This time, however, the proposal is to take the King County model for judicial performance evaluations, make some modifications and spread it across all 39 counties in Washington.
So that KCBA could better understand the current proposal and how it might impact our own programs, we asked the chairs of the committees that would likely be affected by this statewide effort to sit down with the proponents for a briefing. The presentation was made in early January by Judge Ruhl, Judge Michael Trickey of the Court of Appeals, former Superior Court judge and now KCBA Trustee Sharon Armstrong, former Superior Court Judge Terry Lukens, and Robert Mitchell from K&L Gates.
Invited to participate were Judicial Officer Survey Committee Chair Carl Forsberg; Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee Co-chairs Jesse Dubow and Jeff Cohen; Judicial Conferencing Committee Co-chairs Kinnon Williams and Raegen Rasnic; and Judiciary & Litigation Committee Co-chairs Lafcadio Darling and Brett Hill. Rounding out the KCBA team were KCBA Past President Joe Bringman, Executive Director Andy Prazuch and me. (My listing of the KCBA committees represented at this meeting is intended to demonstrate the breadth of existing KCBA programs that could be affected if a statewide JPE program is implemented.)
The discussion at January's meeting was far reaching. The presenters were articulate and thoughtful in explaining why the JPE program should be adopted across Washington. Their arguments will be familiar to KCBA members who have long backed our own program.
They argue that reliable feedback can help judges to improve their performance. At the same time, the evaluation results can be used by voters to educate themselves on the qualities that make for a good judge who is deserving of their vote. The proponents also assert that "comprehensive ratings will help to insulate judges from well-funded, single-issue attacks."
In February 2014, the proponents proposed a general court rule to the Washington Supreme Court that would make the statewide JPE program mandatory - not just for sitting judges, but also for judicial candidates. Following consideration by the Rules Committee, the Supreme Court last fall referred the proposal to the Board for Judicial Administration.
Does KCBA support programs to improve and strength our judiciary? The answer is an emphatic "yes." We dedicate substantial resources to conducting our judicial officer evaluations for all King County courts. In addition, the 80-plus members of our Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee devote untold volunteer hours to providing solid guidance to voters as they consider how to mark their ballots.
That effort is the bar's in-depth reference check/interview process for candidates for judicial election or appointment that results in ratings ranging from "exceptionally well qualified" to "not qualified." On top of all of that, KCBA is a longtime supporter of votingforjudges.org, the website that Judge Ruhl helped create to provide nonpartisan, impartial information on judicial contests across the state.
Will KCBA endorse the proposal for a statewide JPE program? That question will be answered by the Board of Trustees at its April meeting. In the meantime, questions likely to be asked by the Board include:
- Will a statewide, state-funded program result in the elimination of KCBA's very successful volunteer effort? And how will it impact participation in rating processes of the various minority bar associations?
- Could there be an "opt-out" for King County and other counties that already have a robust JPE program?
- Is the inclusion of non-incumbent candidates in a judicial officer evaluation fair? (KCBA has a distinct and separate process for rating candidates.)
- Can a bureaucratic program meet the tight timelines necessary to evaluate the dozens of candidates who seek judicial office during each election?
- How will the funding necessary to set up a statewide program impact the already stretched court budgets?
A copy of the proposed general rule establishing a statewide JPE program is at www.kcba.org/pdf/2015jpe-proposal.pdf, together with other background information. If you have comments or questions, please send them to me or any of the trustees.
KCBA President Steve Rovig is a principal with Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson P.S. where his practice emphasizes commercial real estate. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-470-7620.