Public needs more information on judges

By Linda Atkinson
Executive Director
DWI Resource Center

In a May 17, 2010, Albuquerque Journal article Alan Malott responds to a reader’s question regarding “judges being able to do whatever they want without any real consequences”. Malott explains  judges are subject to strict supervision. Malott goes on to say how little the public understands the job of being a judge. He then discusses the two separate bodies that oversee judicial performance in New Mexico, the Judicial Standards Commission and the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.

As a longtime criminal justice court monitor, passionate DWI-prevention ally and former member of the NM Judicial Standards Commission, I find the judicial “strict supervision” not at all “strict”, nor is it supervised.

The annual reports of the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission are available online. As I read the 2009 report it raised many concerns. One is the fact that “supervision” is not something that is standard procedure unless a complaint is filed. Another concern is the high level of confidentiality – even the person who files the complaint is to remain silent, another is the number of complaints that were dismissed as unsubstantiated (55). What exactly does ‘unsubstantiated’ mean? In all, eighteen cases became public – some are reported on in the local media, published in the Bar Bulletin or one can go online to read the annual report. So, it begs the question, are the judges under strict supervision?

Malott also discusses the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, which on its current homepage declares; “Make your voice heard. If you receive a survey, please complete it and return it.” However, they are speaking to a select audience, not the general public. As you read about the process used by the Commission to evaluate judges, you will find it lacks any means of public input and omits some critical information on a judge’s performance, such as caseload, dismissals, convictions, appellate record, and observations of courtroom behavior – either by video or in person.

I believe the public wants and deserves a more transparent judiciary as well as an inclusive judicial performance process. To simply dismiss the public’s outcry for accountability because they don’t understand the job, I think is wrong and on a certain level – arrogant. I believe it is one of the judiciary’s responsibilities to inform and educate the public – and find ways to make the process more transparent.  Just because many are non-attorneys does not mean we cannot understand a process that we all a have a stake in.

Many states have the similar judicial oversight commissions as we have here in New Mexico but with a couple of key differences – many invite public input and have a much broader evaluation basis than we have here. For example in our neighboring state of Colorado, the trial judges’ evaluations are developed through survey questionnaires completed by a random sample of persons who have appeared in court before the judge: attorneys (including prosecutors, public defenders and private attorneys), jurors, litigants, law enforcement personnel, employees of the court (including law clerks), court interpreters, employees of probation offices, employees of local departments of social services, victims of crime and appellate judges. In addition, commissions consider a self-evaluation completed by the judge, courtroom observations, review of decisions, review of judge statistics such as relevant docket and sentencing statistics, and a personal interview with the judge. You can see their process spelled out in more detail at the Colorado Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation. Or go to the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance Review, where they welcome citizen participation in judicial merit selection and retention, including comments on a judge’s performance.

Isn’t it time New Mexico bring the citizens into this judicial performance evaluation process? After all the judicial system is there for ALL of us – attorneys and non-attorneys.