Judging Judges

Oh, sure, Mr. Private Sector Wage Slave, you probably get formally evaluated by your boss every year. That annual review by your boss—that idiot—is a painful, tedious, unfair rite of passage annually.

Well, if it makes you feel any better, you can take comfort from the fact that local judges, those titans of wisdom, get evaluated every year too, and they don't like it any better than you do.

Since the 2006 elections, when the courthouses were flooded with Democrats, many of those same judges have been trying to halt the Dallas Bar Association's judicial evaluation poll. They claim it's unfair, overtly political, a popularity contest and way too susceptible to grudge voting.

To which the DBA responds: too bad.

Last week, the DBA released its 2009 Judicial Evaluation Poll, which is based on the votes of 1,168 of the Dallas Bar's 9,712 members. In response to complaints, the DBA suspended its 2007 poll and reviewed its methodology, DBA spokeswoman Darlene Hutchinson says. Yet the '09 poll takes four of its six questions from the '05 poll—among them, "Is this judge impartial?" It also changes the responses from the "yes or no" of past polls to a sliding scale: excellent, acceptable, needs improvement and no opinion.

(True story: Buzz once worked for a company that used an eight-point scale for evaluations. One year, all of Buzz's eights—we were a good employee—were erased and marked down to sevens on orders of a boss higher up the chain. The company was giving no raises that year; its theory was that the way to build morale was to give neither money nor praise. Buzz isn't too sympathetic to the judges' complaints.)

At least this year the DBA has taken pains that only lawyers with firsthand knowledge of a judge's work cast votes. That's not enough to please everyone. "In my view, the improvements were only marginal and haven't addressed the fundamental flaws," says Civil District Judge Marty Lowy, who ranked highly. Plus the poll can still be used as a political tool by a candidate running against an incumbent judge, Lowy says. "The bar shouldn't be involved in politics."

It's true. Information—subjective or not—can be used as a tool in a democracy. It can also act as a restraint on those judges who might not be very good at their jobs. On a sliding scale, we'll give the DBA a "good" on this issue. That's not perfect, but it's better than nothing.

 
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