Message from the Executive Director
My name is Jennifer Yim, the director of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC). On the eve of our nation’s elections, I want to introduce myself and share how my experiences have shaped the way that I think about my new role at JPEC and myself as an engaged voter.
I am not a lawyer. I have been involved in the justice system in Utah for nearly 20 years in a variety of roles. I’ve been a juvenile parole board member, a member of a judicial nominating commission, a procedural fairness research consultant, and a founding commissioner on JPEC. I have worked for the Utah State Courts examining issues of racial and ethnic bias.
Over the years, I have learned that many people find that the justice system isn’t easy to navigate or understand. I happen to believe the way forward on important issues is often through increased understanding and engagement. It is in that spirit that I offer a few thoughts about our state’s judicial retention process today.
Why not contested elections?
Several states have contested elections for judges, whether partisan or non-partisan. Utah is different. Along with five other states, we ask voters to weigh in on whether a judge should serve another term of office. Instead of making the contest about politics and campaign affiliations and contributions, these merit-retention states want their judges to prove their qualifications and abilities through an independent evaluation process. Voters then are to make use of that information to make the ultimate decisions at the voting booth. The process asks a lot of voters in terms of attention and engagement, but it also promotes judicial accountability without compromising judicial independence.
If you’ve ever lived in or visited a state with contested judicial elections, you know that the tenor of those elections is very different from Utah’s. Frankly, I don’t want to tarnish our judiciary with the appearance of impropriety that often occurs when attorneys who appear regularly in court make significant financial contributions to a judge’s campaign.
Utah has the retention system it needs. However, that system functions best when there is an informed electorate to participate in it.
Fair treatment of court participants
Here is something that matters deeply to me: how the justice system treats people. I have advocated for attention to this issue in JPEC and in the criminal and juvenile justice system because people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by our institutions of justice no matter their circumstance, no matter who they are.
JPEC holds judges accountable for how they treat people in their courtrooms. Judges may make correct rulings and demonstrate strong legal abilities (which we also measure), but if they treat people (litigants, attorneys, witnesses, and jurors) poorly in the process, the entire judicial system suffers as a consequence.
We evaluate Utah judges on whether they treat people with dignity and respect, whether they provide people opportunities to participate in the process, and whether they afford participants a level playing field. Research shows that when people feel like they’re treated fairly by the courts – something called procedural fairness – they are more satisfied with and more likely to comply with the decision, even when they lose.
We live in an age when the justice system needs to make concerted, daily efforts to demonstrate its ability to provide fair treatment to all the people it serves. By evaluating judges on procedural fairness, JPEC helps to ensure that Utah judges remain mindful of how local courtroom interactions build public trust and confidence in our justice system.
Independent, volunteer commissioners
JPEC commissioners are thoughtful and engaged citizens, although they are generally not well-known. They are social workers, accountants, retired educators, and “baseball moms.” They are not politicians. They are appointed by the three branches of government. By law, about half of the membership may be attorneys. Right now, six of the thirteen members are attorneys. Partisan balance is required. Perhaps most importantly, commissioners are volunteers. They donate countless hours of their time to a careful evaluation of the data collected on each judge. Commissioners ask questions, think critically and independently, and take their responsibilities seriously.
As a voter, your voice is the key voice in the judicial retention process. Casting an informed vote allows Utah residents to make community-based decisions about which judges should serve another term of office. Even though judges may seem distant from our daily lives, there is information available to help make these important decisions. Judicial elections are opportunities for local control about who we think should continue to be vested with the power to influence our lives and communities. I ask you to express yourself through your vote!
Utah’s merit retention system asks us to be engaged, informed voters who are willing to weigh in on what kinds of judges we want in our communities. By law, JPEC makes recommendations to retain or not retain every judge on the ballot. You may agree or disagree with the recommendations. Ultimately, it is voters not JPEC who decide whether a judge should continue to serve. I believe JPEC should work to educate voters about the process and make judicial performance information easily available to them. Over the next few days, please go to our website, review the information there, and make up your own mind about how to vote on judges. Our non-partisan, merit retention system depends on you. Thank you!