Have you reviewed the bar’s mission statement? Hint: It appears every month on the masthead immediately to the left of this column! As you can see, it has five components.
As we get closer to judicial election time in November, I thought I’d use this month’s column to explain in more depth what KCBA does to advance item No. 3: “work with the judiciary to achieve excellence in the administration of justice.” There are two main areas of focus.
The jewel in the crown of the bar’s work with the judiciary is our candidate evaluation rating process. This is the system for publishing ratings for the public about candidates seeking appointment or election to the bench. KCBA commits to issuing ratings in any contested judicial election that appears on the ballot for King County voters. This means every level of court from limited jurisdictions such as Seattle Municipal Court to King County Superior Court to the Washington Supreme Court. We also conduct ratings on request for candidates seeking appointment to judicial vacancies.
Before issuing a rating, a panel of at least 12 people is convened to review the candidate’s judicial questionnaire and to talk confidentially with up to 80 references, including opposing counsel and judges in the last 10 cases in which the candidate was involved. The panel interviews the candidate for a half hour, allowing the candidate to make opening and closing statements before asking for clarification about information in the materials or from references.
After the candidate departs, the panel deliberates for up to an hour before issuing a rating. The rating itself is just a word or three: “not qualified,” “qualified,” “well qualified” or “exceptionally well qualified.” An important clarification is often lost in these ratings: “not qualified” is not a judgment as to statutory eligibility, but rather an assessment of the candidate’s skills, temperament and demeanor.
Judicial Officer Surveys
The next well-known area of bar work with respect to the judiciary comes in the form of quadrennial survey results published about the bar’s experiences with current judicial officers. These occur in presidential election years for Superior Court judges and commissioners, and in even-numbered, non-presidential election years for limited jurisdiction judges.
Professionally administered by an independent research firm, these surveys are sent to all attorneys who over the prior four years have appeared before any of the King County judicial officers being evaluated. This year, there was a 16-percent return rate in our Superior Court survey, with 548 different lawyers participating.
Data are collected via 16 questions about judges’ performance in legal decision making, impartiality, demeanor, and administrative skills. The statistical results are published online. A committee of 17 members reviews the entire survey process and narrative report release.
While the two areas just reviewed are very prominent within the bench and bar, KCBA has many other initiatives with the courts. For example, our Judiciary & Litigation Committee meets monthly to consider liaison issues that are brought to all levels of the courts, with a special emphasis on reviewing, commenting on and suggesting proposed changes to King County Superior Court local rules. Monthly liaison meetings occur between bar leadership and the presiding judges and senior court personnel. Judges and commissioners at all levels of court, including the federal bench, participate in KCBA CLE programming year-round.
A few final items to share. Our Judicial Conferencing program involves small panels of two or three lawyers reviewing colleague feedback and sharing results confidentially with judges (unlike our public surveys and evaluations). Our Fair Campaign Practices Committee stands ready to offer opinions on inappropriate judicial election activities. And our Judicial Candidate Forums provide an opportunity for candidates in contested elections to “face off” in public and talk directly with the voters about their qualifications and judicial philosophies.
KCBA can always place attorney members interested in these efforts into volunteer assignments. Please contact me for more information. I hope you share my pride in the hard work being done by the bench and bar to achieve excellence in the administration of justice.
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