As voters we can play a vital role in ensuring our judiciary maintains a high standard and is comprised only of quality judges. Voters have the right to participate in retention elections. Retention elections provide voters a meaningful voice in deciding who serves in the judiciary. Unlike many other states, Utah does not hold contested elections for its judges. Utah judges are appointed based on merit, outside the grasp of political influence, and are free to rule on issues without being tethered to a political position. In place of contested elections, our state conducts judicial retention elections, providing citizens with an important role in determining whether a judge should remain on the bench for another term. In these retention elections, voters cast a simple yes or no vote, electing to either retain or dismiss a judge. Each voter’s task is to become knowledgeable enough to evaluate the performance of sitting judges to cast a fair and informed vote.
Information about a judge up for retention can be found online at vote.utah.gov, where you simply type in your address, pull up your sample ballot, and see all the judges on your ballot up for retention. Click on the link to find information about a specific judge or select the “Judicial Evaluation” link to see all judge evaluations.
The information at vote.utah.gov is reliable and fair. In 2008, the Utah Legislature created the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) as an independent government body and charged it to create performance evaluations for all Utah judges. JPEC is made up of 13 commissioners who are appointed by the three branches of government. The commissioners are lawyers and non-lawyers alike. No more than two members from each appointing authority may be from the same political party, helping to ensure partisan balance. JPEC’s performance evaluations are an important tool through which voters can become educated on a judge’s performance.
The JPEC commissioners serve Utah citizens by gathering and analyzing judicial performance data. JPEC makes a recommendation on whether to retain a judge based on minimum performance standards established by law. If a judge passes those minimum standards, the law presumes commissioners will vote to recommend the judge be retained. If a judge fails to pass a minimum performance standard, the law presumes commissioners will vote to recommend the judge not be retained.
JPEC performs an important role in judicial accountability. But that role is successful only when voters also play their part and use the information JPEC provides to cast informed votes in November. Before entering the voting booth, take some time to visit vote.utah.gov. There, you will find all the information you need to vote confidently in this year’s judicial retention election. By doing so, you can help to ensure that we have quality judges serving Utah.
Curtis M. Jensen is a JPEC commissioner, a founding partner of Snow Jensen & Reece, P.C., and a former president of the Utah State Bar.