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Too Political? Too Personal? Let's Climb the Dallas Bar Association's Judicial Poll.

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Since the 2006 elections, when the courthouses were flooded with Democratic judges, many of those very same barristers have been trying to put the kibosh on the Dallas Bar Association's judicial evaluation poll. Why come? Well, they claim, among other things, that it's unfair, overtly political, a popularity contest, a poor indicator of judicial performance, too subjective and way too susceptible to grudge voting. They just wanted the danged thing adiosed.

They did not get their way: 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. The members were asked to cast votes for local judges -- federal, state, county -- who have held judicial office for at least one year. In response to complaints, the DBA suspended its 2007 poll and reviewed its methodology with a subcommittee that reviewed everything "from A to Z," as spokesperson Darlene Hutchinson tells Unfair Park. Yet the '09 poll takes four of its six questions from the '05 poll -- among them, "Is this judge impartial?" "Does this judge demonstrate a proper judicial temperament and demeanor?" "Do you approve of this judge's overall performance?" It does, however, change the allowable responses from the "yes or no" of past polls to a sliding scale of options: Excellent, Acceptable, Needs Improvement and No Opinion.

DBA President Christina Melton Crain isn't available today -- she's in and out of meetings -- but Hutchinson directs our attention to this May poll primer in which some of the methodology issues are addressed. Such as:

One of the concerns frequently raised about the JEP was that lawyers rated judges when they had not appeared before the judge and had no personal knowledge of the judge. The JEP now requires the voting lawyer to certify that they have first-hand and personal knowledge of a judge's performance in office within the last four years and of such a degree to allow the lawyer to reasonably evaluate the judge's performance.

Hutchinson also sent along the introduction to the questionnaire sent to participating members; those three pages are after the jump. But the alterations aren't 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. "Participation is low, and there is no way to control whether lawyers have spent any time in front of the judges they are evaluating." Plus the poll can still be used as a political tool by a candidate running against an incumbent judge or as the basis of a newspaper's endorsement of a candidate. "And I don't think the bar should be involved in politics," Lowy says.  

Lowry has little to complain about: The approval of his overall job performance (58 percent of the voting lawyers rated him "Excellent") topped all other civil district judges, except for S. Craig Smith (59 percent) and Jim Jordan (also 58 percent). More concerned should be Bruce Priddy, whose low 14 percent "Excellent" job approval rating may have something to do with his recently publicized troubles with State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Or this.

"Most of those who hammered Judge Priddy did so because of something they read, not because of something he did in court," says attorney Randy Johnston. "The poll expressly says do not vote if you haven't been in front of the person within last four years, but nobody follows that. If there's some judge that a lawyer likes, he is going to rate that judge high on everything."

Counters attorney Susan Hays, former Dallas County Democratic Chair: "You're never going to have a perfect methodology. But the bar poll gives a good indication of who is doing well, and any judge who does substantially below their peers needs to do some thinking about how they are conducting themselves."

That would certainly seem to apply to County Court at Law Judge D'Metria Benson, whose embarrassing 6 percent "Excellent" overall job approval rating (82 percent of the 275 lawyers who cast votes in her category said she "Needs Improvement") might make this Democrat vulnerable to at least a primary challenge. Others in precarious positions: Family law judges David Hanschen, who received an "Excellent" job approval rating of only 14 percent from the 169 responding lawyers, and Lynn Cherry, who received "Excellent" approval rating from 30 percent of those responding.

Lawyers, on the other hand, held family judges Dennise Garcia, Marilea Lewis and Tena T. Callahan in higher regard. Top vote-getters on the criminal side of the docket were district judges Fred Tinsley and John Creuzot, each with an "Excellent" overall job approval rating of 73 percent.Dallas Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Poll Intro Pages

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