What about judges? The question is an obsession with many
Americans these days. Do they perform well in trials and other
legal procedures? How can those who complain loudly about lack of
judicial accountability find the answer to this critical
question? Not easily in Kansas, although there is a chance that
could change by the November election next year.
An effort is under way to persuade the Kansas Legislature to establish a judicial performance evaluation program in the Sunflower State. This would fill a void that has been in evidence far too long in the Kansas court system.
Right now citizens do not have a systematic way to evaluate judges, especially those in the merit selection plan. Without guidance, voters are adrift in casting the judicial ballot.
Incidentally, the Johnson County Bar Association polls lawyers on judicial performance and circulates the results to the public as a service to voters.
A bit of explanation on the judicial system. Kansas voters adopted the nonpartisan, or merit, judicial selection plan for the Supreme Court and Kansas Court of Appeals years ago. When a vacancy occurs, a special nominating commission takes applications, interviews those seeking the judgeship and submits a panel of nominees, usually three, to the governor. The chief executive names one of them to the bench. After that they run for retention in office.
Voters also approved a local option plan for the 31 trial court districts. Seventeen of them, including Johnson County, use merit selection. District Court judges are chosen in partisan elections in 14 jurisdictions, Wyandotte County among them.
In recent days, legislation to establish a statewide judicial performance evaluation program has been approved by the Kansas Judicial Council for introduction in the 2006 Kansas Legislature. The proposal was developed by a special performance advisory committee created by the council and chaired by Judge Stephen D. Hill, a member of the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Under the legislation, a 13-member Commission on Judicial Performance would be set up as an independent organization of the Kansas Judicial Council. The council, which is appointed by the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, would name six non-lawyers and six lawyers, justices or judges. The council would also name a lawyer, justice or judge to chair the commission.
Funded with state appropriations, the commission would conduct surveys of court users who have directly observed the courts, including lawyers, litigants and jurors.
The results of the assessments, which would be based on legal ability, integrity, impartiality, communication skills, professionalism, temperament and administrative capacity, would be made available to assist voters in judging the performance of nonpartisan judges. Public recommendations would be made on judges up for retention.
"Evaluation of judges subject to political (partisan) elections shall be used solely for self-improvement," the proposal stated. The results would not be made public.
Hill, in an interview this week, said the advisory committee had spent about a year developing the plan to enhance public knowledge of the courts and to provide self-improvement for members of the state courts.
"We don't represent groups (such as political parties or special interests)," Hill explained.
Judicial candidates, because of the nature of their responsibilities, tend not to campaign in the traditional sense. Thus the public is not fully exposed to information about judicial service.
Too, judicial ballots are often overshadowed by controversial, heavily funded races for positions in the legislative and executive branches of the government.
That should not be the case. Our courts play a vital role in settling conflicts and helping protect the public safety. Their service is invaluable.
The Legislature has an obligation to establish this judicial performance program. Voters deserve to have much more information than is now available.
"We need to provide a mechanism so the people will know
more about judges," said J. Nick Badgerow, an Overland Park
lawyer who is a member of the Kansas Judicial
ŠThe Johnson County Sun 2006
The mechanism that is more basic to the People than the above proposal is one that will enable them to orderly and systematically exercise their inherent right to alter or reform government in such manner as they deem necessary and proper.
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