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Evaluating Our Appellate Judges: Reviewing Performance and Informing Voters

Robert Thompson Posted in Featured, Quality Judges

Appellate judges in 38 states stand for election. One state is holding judicial elections in November, and many more will do so in 2014. But how much do we know about our appellate judges? Are they fair? Do the lawyers who appear before them respect them? Do they write opinions that parties can understand and trial judges can apply in future decisions? Are they doing a good job?

  • Right now, there are only 11 states (including Washington, D.C.) that have an official process for evaluating the performance of appellate judges.
  • Of these, only 7 states collect and provide such insights into the performance of appellate judges to voters before retention elections.
  • In at least 5 additional states, bar associations survey attorneys and make public their evaluations of the judges up for retention.

With only a fraction of states providing such information about appellate judges, very few voters have what they need to make an informed and responsible decision at the ballot box.

We at IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, are working to change that. We are pleased to offer Recommended Tools for Evaluating Appellate Judges.

Our newest publication provides customizable tools for any state, bar association, or citizens group to gather information about their judges. These tools are flexible and adaptable to any system for selecting judges, even when they do not stand for election, and they can be inexpensively implemented, with the potential benefits far outweighing any minimal costs.

“Elections for appellate judges—both contested and retention—have become increasingly politicized, and there is a pressing need for objective and apolitical information about judges’ performance on the bench, irrespective of how they have ruled on hot-button issues,” said Malia Reddick, Director of IAALS’ Quality Judges Initiative.

We developed this model process over a two-year period that included a national conference, an expert task force, and focus groups with appellate judges and attorneys. We worked with social scientists to hone our final recommendations, which include:

  • Guidelines and templates for reviewing a judge’s written opinions for legal analysis and reasoning, clarity, and fairness
  • Surveys about appellate judges for attorneys who appear before them and use their opinions, trial judges who apply their rulings, and court staff who work closely with them
  • A self-evaluation tool that allows judges to assess their own strengths, weaknesses, and overall performance

Recommended Tools for Evaluating Appellate Judges is available online now.