This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In November, Utah voters will be asked to weigh in on a number of items. One of the most overlooked is whether or not to retain judges. Like many, I used to be weary and apathetic about the process of voting on the retention of judges. I always voted, but assumed I was taking part in a rubber-stamped process.
In 2014, I was appointed to serve on the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission. I am not a lawyer. Nearly half of the commissioners are non-lawyers. As commissioners and community members, regardless of background and occupation, we all have a vested interest in improving the delivery of justice.
JPEC is an independent, government body. It was created for the purpose of evaluating Utah judges and to give voters information to make decisions in judicial elections. The evaluation process and the reports that are produced are comprehensive.
Evaluation of each judge consists of compiling data collected from attorney, court staff and juror evaluations. Additional responses are collected from community members who are trained to sit in courtrooms and document their observations. The public is also able to submit comments on judges with whom they've had experience. Lastly, judges have standards and education requirements they must meet.
All of the information is evaluated and considered before JPEC issues its final report for each judge. This includes a recommendation to "retain" or "not retain." The report is publicly available for any judge who chooses to file for re-election. If a judge chooses not to run for reelection, their report becomes a protected record. By law, the report is not available to the public.
The process is transparent and it works. In addition to providing information to voters, the performance evaluation offers insight to judges. The information can be used as a tool to improve the performance of individual judges as well as inform them about what they are doing well. The report can also help a judge make the difficult decision to not run for reelection. Overall, the information is used as a means to improve the judiciary as a whole. Evaluation information for judges can be found in the Utah Voter Information Pamphlet. Detailed performance evaluation reports can also be found at judges.utah.gov.
As voters we have a responsibility to hold the judiciary accountable to the community. Judicial performance evaluations are in place to ensure we are educated and informed about the votes we cast in November.
Sonya Martinez-Ortiz is a private citizen and commissioner on the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.