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How to Judge a Judge

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Photo: Flickr user s_falkow under Creative Commons License

Every two years voters are asked to elect a handful of judges to the county courts, yet the men and women who covet a black robe are different from most other candidates in one very important respect: they're not asking to represent us.

With senators, members of Congress, city councilors and other elected officials, you get platforms. You get positions. You get ideas about how to solve society's problems through legislation. But pitching changes to existing law is exactly the last thing a judge is supposed to do (remember the separation of powers).

In trial courts, a judge's job is to make sure the rules of court are followed and that all parties are treated fairly. It's not about advocating on behalf of your constituents.

In fact, judicial candidates are ethically barred from campaigning in any traditional sense. The California Code of Judicial Ethics forbids a candidate from taking a position on a particular case or issue before they are asked to hear it in court. They also can't engage in any sort of political activity unless it involves a proposal to improve the legal system in some way, or promotes their own candidacy for a judgeship.

In short, running for judge is more like being the subject of a public performance review. As the voting public, we are the employers, and we are being asked to judge the judge.

So how exactly do you do that when you don't get to see them in action and don't necessarily have the right knowledge to evaluate their performance, anyway?

One way to make up your mind before Election Day is to take a cue from the experts. Newspapers, professional legal groups, and other organizations that have more direct knowledge of a candidate's reputation and abilities often will make endorsements. You can also do a little research on your own. Here are some tips and resources to help you do that.

Qualities to Look for in a Judicial Candidate

The State Bar of California, the licensing agency for anyone who practices law here, evaluates candidates to help the governor decide who best to appoint to the courts (even at the county level, judges are more often appointed -- we're called to vote only when a judge has been challenged by an opponent or when there's an open seat that hasn't been filled by the governor). While the State Bar does not make these evaluations available to the public, it does explain its process and lists the following qualities to look for in a trial judge:

  • decisiveness
  • oral communication skills
  • patience

The Los Angeles County Bar Association, a voluntary nonprofit organization, also evaluates the candidates, and it does publish a report for public consumption (more on their process here). LACBA lists the criteria it uses to judge a judge:

  • integrity and character
  • judgment and intellectual capacity
  • fairness
  • experience
  • industry and diligence
  • judicial temperament
  • professional ability and knowledge of the law
  • health problems
  • general reputation
  • civic and community activities

Resources to Help You Evaluate the Candidates

1. Watch for Endorsements
Local media outlets, including newspapers and radio and TV stations, may have editorial boards that will interview the candidates directly before backing a candidate. You might like to know which one is supported by your favorite news outlet.

2. Search News Reports
Search for stories on the candidate using a search engine or the website of your favorite news source. Los Angeles has two newspapers devoted specifically to the legal matters life of the city: the Daily Journal (paid subscription only) and Metropolitan News-Enterprise (free online).

3. Check the State Bar's Website
The State Bar's attorney search service will list the date a member was first admitted along with any disciplinary actions taken against them throughout their career.

4. Check the Candidate's Website
Some candidates publish a campaign website that may give you more of their personal and professional background.

5. Attend a Debate or Other Public Speaking Event
The League of Women Voters sometimes holds candidate forums for judicial candidates. There may be other opportunities to hear a candidate speak, too. Check their personal websites to see if they have a calendar of events.

6. Ask a Lawyer Friend
If you know someone in the legal profession, ask whether he or she knows or has worked with the candidate. Especially if you value your friend's opinion, you might be able to get a better sense of how well the candidate lives up to the qualities listed earlier.

7. Watch the Candidate at Work
If you have time, and it's a sitting judge, you can often visit his or her courtroom and observe as a member of the public (find a judge's courtroom here). Prosecutors are assigned to courtrooms, too, so you can find out where they practice and watch them in action.

8. Search Court Records
If you really like digging into public records, services such as Westlaw, Lexis and Loislaw provide public access (often with a fee) to search court records. Here you can find opinions written by appellate or Supreme Court judges that may offer insight into an attorney's performance. If the candidate was an attorney who often argued cases in a court of appeal, you can see whether and even how often he or she was successful. You can also find evidence of missteps that may have led to losing a case on appeal.

9. Be Wary of Slate Mailers
Slate mailers often come disguised as endorsements from political organizations that in fact have nothing to do with them. Read the fine print and know that it's possible a candidate simply paid to be on the list.

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