Utah judges are on the November ballot. Here's how to cast an informed vote

Friday , October 07, 2016 - 6:00 AM

SHANNON SEBAHAR, special to the Standard-Examiner

Have you ever stepped into the voting booth and thought, “How can I vote for these judges when I don’t know anything about them?” It has been common for voters, as they move down their ballot, to know less and less about the candidates and issues on which they are asked to vote.

Judges typically are further down the ballot, but are among those elected officials that can have the biggest impact on our lives. From speeding tickets and divorces to fraud, drug crimes and murder, judges make daily decisions that affect all of us in Utah.

As election day draws near, now is the time to educate ourselves about the rest of the ballot. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) has launched a new website to provide information about Utah judges to help voters “finish the ballot.” Key information is included in a user-friendly site, along with a concise overview which can now be accessed on mobile devices.

A summary of each judge’s performance is available along with a voting recommendation by JPEC, a bipartisan commission with members appointed by all three branches of government and made up of both lawyers and non-lawyer citizens. For those wanting more than just a recommendation, select the “Summary” to get a full one-page synopsis or download a full report.

To access the informaiton, just go to judges.utah.gov and select your county or specific judge. Weber, Davis and Morgan counties have three district judges up for reelection this year and depending on your city, you may have a judge running for the local justice court. You can also link directly to each judge from your sample ballot found at vote.utah.gov.

JPEC’s data includes surveys of lawyers, court staff, juvenile court professionals, jurors and others who have appeared before the judge. These surveys evaluate legal ability, judicial integrity and temperament, administrative abilities and procedural fairness – basically the respect and fair treatment one should expect in a courtroom. In addition to this data, anonymous court observers visit each courtroom and write detailed accounts of the judge’s performance. Public comments are also reviewed. All of this information is compiled, sent to the judge for self-improvement purposes, and used to make the JPEC recommendation.

As you scroll through the data, it may seem as though JPEC has rubber-stamped each judge with a positive recommendation. But this is absolutely not the case.

While it is true that the majority do get “Retain” recommendations, there are two primary reasons for this. First, Utah has a very rigorous merit selection process which thoroughly vets candidates and ultimately results in a strong and well-qualified judiciary.

Also, if a judge’s performance report is unsatisfactory, he or she may choose not to run for re-election and the report is no longer a public record.

Hopefully, an appearance before a judge isn’t in your near future. But making sure we keep the best judges is important for all of us and only you, the voter, can decide if a judge will stay in office.

This November, make your voice heard with an informed vote on Utah judges. Use the information available to you to know your judges and finish the ballot.

Shannon Sebahar has served on the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission since 2013 and was appointed by the Utah House of Representatives as a citizen representative. She lives in South Ogden. Email: ssebahar@gmail.com

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