June 2013 Bar Bulletin
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June 2013 Bar Bulletin

Improvements Planned for Judicial Surveys

By Anne Daly and Andrew Prazuch


For 65 years, the King County Bar Association has conducted a "bar poll" regarding the county's sitting judges, giving our members the opportunity to express opinions about the performance of our local bench. The Judicial Officer Survey consists solely of data self-reported by attorneys and includes no qualitative review by the bar or an opportunity for discussion with the individual judges.

All sitting judges are included every four years. Last year, we released the Superior Court survey results; next year we will release the results for the municipal and district courts.

This survey sometimes is confused with KCBA's Judicial Candidate Evaluation, which 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." See the article on Page 19 for a discussion of recent changes to that process.

The Judicial Officer Survey has long been described as the "scuttlebutt of the courthouse writ large." Nothing more, nothing less. It is not totally scientific nor a complete formal job evaluation for each judge. It is nothing more and nothing less than the collective opinions - the scuttlebutt - of those lawyers who have appeared before each of the judges included in the survey. It is one of several tools KCBA provides practitioners and the public for evaluating the performance of judges, all of whom are subject to the will of the voters when they seek re-election to their seats.

Over the years, KCBA has engaged a researcher to assist with each survey. It is a large undertaking to send out thousands of surveys and compile responses, and there are many data points to tabulate and cross-reference. The researcher also assists in analyzing the results to point out any significant anomalies.

Usually when the survey is released, judges whose scores fall within the lower ranges or their supporters attempt to discredit the survey. Often they point to small response pools, over-representation in respondents from one or another area of the bar, bias, timing or any number of other concerns. During the 2012 election cycle, additional concerns about the survey occurred when the bar's researcher released to the media, without authorization, extra details about respondent groups and additional analysis of the results that typically would not be released. KCBA received complaints about this from the bar, bench and press.

As a result, the KCBA Board of Trustees created an ad hoc group to review the survey process and identify any areas that could be improved, while still appreciating that the survey is not meant to be anything more than the "scuttlebutt of the courthouse." Representatives from the bench, prosecutor's office, defense bar and the private bar, as well as a researcher experienced in judicial surveys, were included in this group. They recommended several changes for the next round of surveys, which the Board adopted at its May meeting.

First, the bar will expand the period being reviewed from two years to four years. This should assist in increasing the overall number of responses while also avoiding surveys that focus too much on a limited rotation that a judge may be serving.

Second, KCBA will release the results several months in advance of the candidate election filing period in May. In recent years, that deadline has been moved to an earlier point in the calendar, sometimes resulting in the survey coming out barely a month before the filing period. The earlier data release will allow the public and the judges more time to review results before the next election cycle.

Third, the bar committee that oversees the survey and the process for oversight will be enhanced. Over the years, participation on the committee has decreased as the survey became more routine and as the researcher played more of a lead role in tabulating results. In addition, the researcher has become more publicly associated with the survey's results. KCBA will take steps to ensure that the report is clearly the bar's work product, ensuring that only the bar "owns" the data and only the bar releases information and "speaks" about the results.

Finally, the newly rebooted Judicial Candidate Survey Committee will review all previous survey questions and demographic data collected. We expect to consider any implicit bias in our questions. We also plan to streamline demographic data collected. While more data will be collected than is released, the data collected will be reviewed by the researcher and the Committee to improve the survey tool and process.

The improvements adopted by the Board should make for a better survey process. But ultimately the survey should not be confused with any rigorous, scientific, opinion-gathering process. It reflects the opinions, writ large, of those attorneys who choose to express them. Nothing more, nothing less. Those opinions have value, but they must be considered along with candidate ratings, debates and other efforts the bar makes to offer as complete a picture of judicial performance as we can.

Anne Daly is KCBA's first vice president and Andrew Prazuch is KCBA's executive director.


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