By Kaustuv M. Das and Andrew J. Prazuch
Last year, several media outlets and candidates for judicial office raised questions about the King County Bar Association's judicial screening and evaluation programs. In response, the Board of Trustees has spent many months reviewing both programs to ensure they continue to provide the strongest and most reliable results possible.
The following is a summary of KCBA's newly updated rating process for judicial candidates, which was adopted to address ideas for improvement identified by the ad hoc working group the Board created to analyze and revise the rating process. Among the changes - all of which are meant to bring more transparency and clarity to the rating process - was renaming the screening committee to the Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee. [Please see Page 20 for an article on improvements to the Judicial Officer Survey Committee.]
Evaluating candidates who aspire to serve as judges requires extensive inquiry into their personal and professional backgrounds. Lawyers and judges who know the candidates must be interviewed. In most instances, these references will not speak candidly unless they know their remarks will be kept confidential. As a result, the Committee cannot reveal this information to either the candidates or the public. If the Committee were to provide the transparency that some have proposed, the rating system would be seriously compromised as many references would undoubtedly hesitate to participate or be candid.
How then can the bar, bench and public have confidence in the integrity of the Committee's rating system when it requires so much confidentiality? The answer is through a system of checks and balances that are contained within the Committee's operating rules and procedures.
The Committee, as a whole, is comprised of more than 75 experienced attorneys from all areas of legal practice, and includes an additional nine non-attorneys. Committee members reflect a cross-section of our community with respect to race, gender, and social and sexual orientation.
Prior to being evaluated by the Committee, each candidate completes a 13-page questionnaire issued by the Office of the Governor and KCBA's supplemental five-page questionnaire. Each candidate also is asked to provide more than 50 references, which include opposing counsel, judges, past and current supervisors, and non-attorney references.
Candidates are evaluated by a panel of between 12 and 18 committee members. To avoid skewed data or bias, the reference checking is randomly assigned to the panel members so that each panelist talks to two to five references. All references are assured of confidentiality and asked to provide their assessment of the candidate's abilities, skills, knowledge, judicial temperament and ethics. Not every reference check bears fruit; some are unavailable or lack relevant, firsthand knowledge. After interviewing dozens of references, however, the result of this process is typically a comprehensive body of information about the candidate being evaluated.
The panel then convenes to interview and rate the candidate. Each candidate is interviewed for 30 minutes. Along with identifying references, this is an area in which the candidate has a great deal of control over the rating process. The more concise a candidate is in responding to questions, the more questions the panel will ask during the interview. In addition to the interview, every reference check is read aloud to the entire panel, with the name of the reference identified to the panel. An isolated, negative reference is typically insufficient to adversely affect a candidate's rating. Multiple, independent references echoing similar concerns, however, typically will impact a rating.
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