In the fall of 2006, a partisan group in Colorado tried to convince that state’s voters to adopt a ballot initiative that would retroactively remove five of the state’s seven supreme court justices. The justices’ offense? They were all appointed by the same Democratic Governor over a span of a decade. Proponents of the measure argued that the targeted justices had decided cases in a blindly partisan manner, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary. An exhaustive and concerted effort by the state bar and other groups eventually stopped the initiative from passing, but the bad taste of populist politics remained. In 2010, a group calling itself “Clear the Bench Colorado” again tried to remove four state supreme court justices by voting for non-retention. Again, the effort was unsuccessful.
Instrumental to countering these “clear the bench” messages has been the presence of a longstanding and well-respected judicial performance evaluation (JPE) program in the state. For nearly twenty years leading up the 2006 ballot initiative, state judges had been periodically evaluated by local commissions, and the evaluation results shared with the public leading up to each judge’s retention election. As I have documented in this article, the Colorado JPE process should be credited not only with convincing voters that their judges were highly competent and professional, but also that occasional controversial decisions needed to be placed in broader context in determining whether a judge should remain on the bench.
Unfortunately, the same trend is now infecting Colorado’s southern neighbor. A group calling itself “Clear the Bench New Mexico” is calling on voters to “fire” judges who have issued sporadic controversial decisions by voting to not retain them in office.
But maybe New Mexico’s JPE well-established can serve a similar heroic role. As set out here, the process takes a comprehensive look at the judge’s work twice during his or her term in office, focusing (as with other JPE programs) not on case outcomes, but on each judge’s capacity and commitment to providing a fair process. Individual evaluations are posted for each judge facing retention, and voters can read these evaluations and make up their own minds.
A common complaint about JPE is that retention voters rarely read the full evaluations. Many choose not to vote at all with respect to judges, and others vote haphazardly — focusing, for example, on the judge’s last name or perceived gender, or whether the judge is recommended by a lawyer friend. So there is much work to be done for the JPE process to meet its full potential. But surely it is a better way to inform the public than the half-baked wranglings of political partisans.