Unless you’re in trouble with the law – a lot – you likely don’t know much about the performance of Pierce County’s Superior Court judges. Even when we serve on jury duty, we see only one judge.
And yet, we’re all expected to cast an informed vote in August to elect members to our local bench.
That conundrum was the impetus for our first installment of “Judging the judges” eight years ago. We wrote about the judges’ survey again four years ago, and the third installment appears on today’s front page.
The 2004 survey was the work of News Tribune court reporter Karen Hucks. She spent months writing the survey, sending it out to local lawyers – the people who work most closely with judges – and tallying the results. In 2008, the local bar association took over the survey, and the bar repeated the survey this year.
Each survey asked lawyers to rate the judges in a handful of areas. Each survey granted lawyers anonymity, as it would be difficult for them to speak candidly when they would have to appear again before these judges.
From the first survey in 2004, judges expressed their support for the numerical evaluation but resisted allowing lawyers to comment anonymously about their strengths and weaknesses.
To be sure, people can say outrageous or even untruthful things from behind a cloak of anonymity. But the comments also put the meat on the bones of a numerical rating that tells the voter little.
In 2004, a committee from the bench visited the TNT to express its concern about anonymous comments. We still published them, but also published the judges’ letter of protest.
In 2008, the bar survey again allowed lawyers to comment. The judges that year asked that only they see the comments, but we included them again for publication.
This year, the bar survey didn’t allow for comments. Standing on our belief that comments helped to flesh out the ratings, we followed up on the bar survey with emails asking lawyers to comment and granting them anonymity.
We shared the comments with judges and asked each for a response. Some responded; others did not.
In selecting comments for the chart on pages A14-15 in Sunday's TNT, reporter Adam Lynn threw out the extremes and chose those that were representative of the whole. It helps to know, for instance, what’s behind lawyers’ positive marks for Judge John Hickman. The lawyers’ comments tell us he “treats people well” and “works hard.” Judge Linda Lee got lower numbers. A commenter said “she cares more about procedure than justice.” It’s one person’s opinion, but helps us to understand her rating.
We put a larger sampling and a complete summary of the bar survey here, where you can judge for yourself. We suggest you also throw out the extremes, but read the comments for general sense of what lawyers expressed.
As Lynn notes in his story, the survey results have been used as a tool to unseat incumbent judges. We know that doesn’t always work out well.
Michael Hecht touted the low survey ratings for incumbent Judge Sergio Armijo in 2008 and won his election bid against him. Shortly thereafter, Hecht had to resign from the bench after being convicted of felony harassment and patronizing a prostitute.
Lynn will write another story in a few weeks about incumbents and challengers for this year’s open seats. But he also sees the value of publishing this insiders’ evaluation of the sitting judiciary.
”Superior Court judges have tremendous power, but for the most part their job performance escapes public scrutiny,” Lynn said. “This survey, while imperfect, gives voters and taxpayers a look at how the judges are performing their jobs.”
We are going live this weekend with our new online voter guide. It appears here.
We worked with e.thePeople, a nonprofit online developer, to create this tool. It asks candidates to enter biographical information and respond to questions written by our beat reporters and tailored to each race. That makes it more informative than the official voter guides, which provide little of this detail.
The site will ask you to enter your home address so we can serve up a ballot customized to your voting districts for county, legislative, statewide and congressional races.
You’ll be able to compare candidates side-by-side on experience, endorsements and where they stand on issues. You can then check your choice and move on to the next race. (We’re not tallying your votes; they’re for your eyes only.)
At the end, you can print out or email yourself a ballot cheat sheet with your choices to take with you to the “polls” (in our case, likely your kitchen table), The guide will work on your desktop and laptop, and also a tablet or smartphone.