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Wanna make informed votes on judges? Utah makes it easier with a handy website

iStock — close up of judge striking gavel in a courtroom
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The Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission evaluates a judge based on their legal ability, integrity, judicial temperament, administrative skills and procedural fairness.

Utah is one of only a few states that allow voters to decide if a judge should keep their seat on the bench. But there’s a notable dropoff in the number of people who vote on judge retention versus congressional candidates or ballot initiatives.

Jennifer Yim, the director of the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, attributes the lack of votes to the minimal information available about the judges up for retention.

“They see this long list of judges and they feel like they have no way of knowing how to cast their votes,” she said.

That’s where the independent and nonpartisan commission hopes to help voters out by taking a detailed look at all 63 judges on November’s ballot.

The commission evaluates a judge based on their legal ability, integrity, judicial temperament, administrative skills and procedural fairness.

To do that it uses four criteria: objective standards, courtroom observation results, survey response and court-user interviews. The commission also collects public comments from citizens who have interacted with any given judge.

From that data, the commission determines if each judge meets performance standards. It then votes on whether it recommends a judge remain on the bench. All judges are subject to retention, including Utah’s Supreme Court Justices.

“Judicial performance evaluation comes about as a way to provide the information that the voter might need to make that decision,” Yim said, “because most of us aren't in court very often and wouldn't have any way of making sense of that part of our ballot without it.”

All a voter has to do is visit knowyourjudges.utah.gov or judges.utah.gov, select a Utah county and they will gain access to each evaluation the commission has completed. Front and center is a short description of the judge’s performance and an infographic showcasing a judge’s ranking.

Users are also able to read the survey responses and view a breakdown of each category, such as the courtroom observation results.

Another critical aspect of the commission is informing judges of their evaluations halfway through their six-year term. If the commission determines a judge needs to improve, they have time to remedy the problems before the general election.

“The judges are able to address the issues, come up with a plan, work with their education departments and fix those problems,” Yim said.

To Yim, that is “by far the most effective” part of the process.

Retired Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas agrees. He served as a judge for the better part of 18 years – both as a trial judge and on the state’s Supreme Court. He said one of the reasons Utah has a “stellar judiciary” is partly due to the commission and its evaluations.

Himonas believes the commission’s evaluations are vital to both the judge and the public.

“It's really important for the judges to get the feedback and to be able to improve their performance,” he said. “I also think it's really important for the public and public confidence in the judiciary to see what the evaluations are, how people that are appearing in front of the judges feel about that.”

If a judge chooses not to fix the problems identified by the commission or if the commission recommends the judge not be retained, Yim said more often than not, the judge chooses to step down from the bench.

“It's important for voters to know that they have a say,” Yim said. “They can cast informed votes on judges by going to judges.utah.gov, by taking a look at the information and choosing for themselves how they want to vote on the judges who serve their communities.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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