August 2012 Bar Bulletin
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August 2012 Bar Bulletin

KCBA Judicial Evaluation Survey Needs Composite Metric

By Henry E. Lippek


Judicial evaluation is a critical function. From its 1886 beginning, a core function of the King County Bar Association, the largest and most active voluntary bar association in the Pacific Northwest, was to improve the judiciary, now an ever more important function as more political questions are litigated in courts; laws, regulations and policies become more detailed and intrusive; and judges decide more of society's important questions.

For a democracy to acceptably function, ordinary citizens, not just lobbyists, must be vigilant and actively organize to effectively participate in public affairs. Transparency and sunshine are required to keep all major institutions of society accountable - to prevent corruption and overreaching by the powerful and to protect the general public, especially the most vulnerable, and to preserve individual dignity and human rights.

Washington constitutional judges are elected.1 In 1948, KCBA began formal polling of attorneys to rate candidates for Superior Court and Supreme Court positions to assist voters and attorneys and to improve the judiciary.

KCBA judicial survey reports recently declined in usefulness. Until the 20082 and 2012 Superior Court survey reports, each judge's overall or composite score was reported. This year, and in the 2008 survey, however, only separate averages in four "behavior-based measures" - legal decision making; integrity and impartiality; demeanor, temperament and communication; and administrative skills - were reported. No composite or overall average was reported. This failure undercuts the usefulness of the survey report, reduces media coverage, and obscures important information for attorneys, judges and the voting public.

In 2008 and this year, I and others calculated average scores for each of the individual measures to arrive at the missing composite or overall average for each judge, and tabulated the results by quartile. For example, Judge John Erlick had the highest composite score this year and the second-highest score in 2008.3

Reporting average scores of judges is important. Overall or composite averages facilitate identification of the best- and worst-performing judges. The hope and expectation is that top-rated judges are retained and the lowest are challenged. Student grade-point averages, employee evaluations, judicial candidate ratings by screening committees, investment recommendations, college rankings, most livable cities surveys, and best-car ratings are condensed to an overall rating. The public and lawyers should be provided each judge's overall score. If a reader is interested in a single criterion, he or she can focus on it.

By failing to provide an overall or composite average, the bar is presenting an incomplete and marginally useful product. Voters and attorneys do not want to spend hours completing the KCBA's job in reporting survey results. Attorneys will get the judicial information they need by relying on their own experience, a colleague's advice or other organization's ratings. A tiny fraction of voters will consult the Voting for Judges website, ask someone whom they trust for recommendations or rely on press endorsements, but the vast majority either will skip voting for judges altogether or decide which judge to vote for based on name familiarity or a vague recollection of campaign materials or press coverage.

The KCBA survey is probably the most rigorous, statistically valid and best picture available of judicial performance of the evaluated officers. There is little point in going to all the effort and expense to undertake the judicial evaluation survey if the resulting report does not provide the clear ratings attorneys and voters have every right to expect.

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