Judging Utah’s judges: Judicial confirmations on the ballot

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Lauren Johnson
Utah voters can use resources such as the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) website to become more informed on the judges on their ballot. (Lauren Johnson)

Utah voters have the opportunity to evaluate their local judges during the November election, and the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) is here to help.

According to the commission, one of its goals is to “collect and disseminate valid information about each judge’s performance so that voters may make informed decisions about whether or not to retain that judge in office.” It also provides judges with feedback about their performance, which improves the quality of the judiciary as a whole. 

“Voters just get a yes or no question on their ballot and are asked if the judge may continue to serve another term,” said Jennifer Yim, JPEC’s executive director.

Before appearing on a ballot, Yim said Utah judges get appointed, not elected, by a bipartisan nominating commission. A list of qualified candidates is then given to the governor. If the state Senate approves, there’s a new judge on the bench to serve for a 3-year term, she said. 

Yim said voters can see JPEC’s merit-based evaluations for each judge online. She recommended voters treat judges like any other candidates on the ballot, and extend research beyond just looking at evaluations.

This year almost every judge on the ballot has a unanimous vote of approval from the nominating commission, except for Tooele Justice Court Judge John Dow who received a 9-3 vote. According to the JPEC 2020 report on Dow, last fall he sent a “short, graphic video by group text to court staff,” which resulted in a lower recommendation to retain him.

“The Commission finds the judge’s actions deeply concerning, though it recognizes that the judge has taken responsibility for his actions,” the JPEC’s 2020 report says about Dow.

Yim said Utah judges are not allowed to campaign and promote themselves.

“I would rather have my judges busy doing their jobs as judges, not taking the time to campaign to raise money, which I think could potentially influence their ability to be impartial,” Yim said.

Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner said the best way to make sure the court system is fair is to have a type of check and balance on judges. 

“Judicial retention on our ballot is that check to make sure that we have judges in our community that reflect what the community feels is the best interpretation of the law,” Gardner said.

Yim said that judges are essential to be informed about because they are heavily involved in decision making when it comes to social justice issues and equal justice issues.

“(Citizens) care very strongly, very deeply about those issues and citizens don’t get an opportunity to weigh in on every aspect of their justice system in official ways. But voting on judges is one way that they do have a say,” Yim said.

Voters can visit JPEC’s website for information about judges who appear on the 2020 ballot.

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