Citizens Urged to Learn More About Judges Before They Vote Nov. 4th

JEFFERSON CITY, MO – The Missouri Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees today recommended that voters should retain all 50 non-partisan judges who will be up for retention in the November 4, 2014, general election.

“The Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees conducted extensive evaluations providing objective information about the performance of judges up for retention,” said Dale Doerhoff, statewide coordinator of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees. “We urge Missouri voters to use this information to make sure we have good judges who are fair, impartial and skilled.”

The committees, composed of an equal number of lawyers and non-lawyers, evaluated the judges including two Supreme Court judges, six court of appeals judges, 21 circuit court trial judges and 21 associate circuit court trial judges from circuits across the state. Doerhoff noted three judges were recommended to be retained on appeal.

The performance evaluations of each judge are available online at www.YourMissouriJudges.org. Brochures with the recommendations will be available at libraries, courthouses and senior centers across the state. Missouri voters may also request the brochure be mailed to them for free by calling 1(800)829-4128.

“The Missouri Bar has the important job of getting these recommendations and information to the voters of Missouri,” said Reuben Shelton, president of the state bar. “In addition to the recommendations, visitors to the website will see the very same information the committees used in forming their recommendations, including evaluations, lawyer surveys, juror surveys of trial judges, court staff surveys and written opinions from the judges.”

Missouri’s judges were evaluated by one of seven different committees. All committee members were appointed by the Board of Governors of The Missouri Bar which ensured that committee membership was reflective of the diversity of the area.

“Non-lawyers play an important part in the judicial performance evaluations by bringing a different perspective to the process,” said Doerhoff. “From participating in juror surveys to serving in equal numbers as lawyers on the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committees, non-lawyers play a key role in making sure we have the best judges for Missourians.”

The committees consider a variety of information about each judge, including lawyers’ ratings of judges, jurors’ ratings of some trial judges and written opinions from judges.

Jurors were asked a series of 10 questions about the judge’s courtroom conduct. For instance: Did the judge clearly explain the legal issues of the case? Did the judge appear to be free from bias or prejudice? Did the judge appear to be well-prepared for the case?

The lawyers’ evaluations focused on key traits that judges need to render justice effectively and fairly. Circuit and associate circuit judges were rated in 19 areas, including a wide range of observable skills and traits, such as treating people fairly, competency in the law and writing clear opinions.

Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges were rated on a different set of criteria as they decide cases that are appealed because of possible legal errors, either procedural or through misinterpretations of the law. These judges were rated on areas such as whether their opinions were clearly written, whether they adequately explained the basis of the court’s decision and whether they issued opinions in a timely manner.

For all judges, lawyers’ evaluations were converted into a numerical score between 1 and 5, with 1 being the poorest and 5 being the best.

“These extensive evaluations help Missouri voters determine whether or not the judges up for retention are meeting the expectations of lawyers and the public,” said Shelton. “This has led to increased voter participation in judicial retention elections since 2008 because when voters feel more informed, they are more likely to vote.”

Missouri uses a merit system known as the Non-Partisan Court Plan to select its appellate judges and trial-level judges in St. Louis City and County, and Jackson, Clay, Platte and Greene Counties. In other parts of the state, trial-level judges seek election in partisan races.

Before becoming a judge, all non-partisan judges are screened by a nominating commission whose members include lawyers, non-lawyers and a judge. The commission selects the three best candidates and forwards their names to the governor, who chooses one candidate to fill the position. After their first year on the bench and again at the end of each term, non-partisan judges must run in retention elections. In retention elections the ballot reads:  “Shall Judge X be retained?” To be retained, each merit-selected judge must receive a simple majority.

The Missouri Bar has been evaluating judges appointed under the Non-Partisan Court Plan and providing that information to voters since 1948. The Missouri Bar funds the current evaluation process, which was created by a Supreme Court of Missouri rule in 2008.  The Missouri system of evaluation was developed after studying model rules and best practices from the American Bar Association and more than 20 judicial performance evaluation systems in the nation.