OCEAN CITY — With rule changes to the judicial discipline process in the works, attorneys and judges at the Maryland State Bar Association’s annual gathering Friday discussed potential avenues for evaluating judges throughout their tenure.
Retired Prince George’s Circuit Judge Steven I. Platt said the judiciary was mostly self-governing when he was appointed to the District Court bench in 1986, but that judicial evaluations are coming.
“The issue now for judicial evaluations isn’t should there be judicial evaluations or not, it’s how are we going to do it?” he said.
The Commission on Judicial Disabilities did not use to be the formal process it is now, he said. The contemplated changes to the Maryland Rules would allow the commission to dismiss a complaint with a confidential letter of advice or offer a private meeting with a peer review panel to evaluate the matter and offer advice.
“The judicial discipline process has become a substitute for judicial evaluations,” said Platt, who writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. “There is confusion, I think, even at that level, over what is legal error and what is misconduct.”
Platt said if evaluations are fair and thorough they can help improve the judicial process and judges up for reelection can use their records to campaign.
“I’d rather have a fair, rigorous judicial evaluation system out there and public,” he said.
Retired Prince George’s Circuit Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. said he would want feedback about his performance and temperament on the bench and “anyone who is sincere about the job wants to know how they’re doing.”
Attorney Margeret Mead, managing partner at MeadLaw PA in Baltimore, said practitioners would like to contribute feedback if anonymity could be guaranteed.
“A good judge is open to comments from litigants,” she said. “It’s the bad judges that are not open to comments from practitioners.”
Lisa Hesse, partner at the Law Office of Walsh, Becker, Moody & Rice in Bowie, echoed Mead’s concern with anonymity for attorneys.
“Attorneys certainly wouldn’t mind giving an evaluation if they know if was going to be anonymous,” she said.
Representatives from Utah and Washington, D.C. shared their judicial evaluation systems, which both involve independent bodies aggregating feedback on judicial temperament and, in some cases, legal ability.
Utah, which has approximately 200 judges and 6,000 members of the bar, established the independent Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission in 2008. The body is made up of volunteers appointed by the three branches of government serving four-year terms.
Evaluations are done halfway through a judge’s term and then right before the judge stands for a retention election, according to executive director Jennifer Yim. The midterm evaluation is confidential and the second evaluation is confidential until the judge decides to seek retention, then it becomes public.
“We have the ability to influence the process by giving judges feedback,” she said.
D.C. judges serve 15-year terms and are evaluated every few years by an independent group, according to District of Columbia Bar President Patrick McGlone. Results are tabulated by a third-party vendor, and the bar association has input on the questionnaire process.
“It happens like clockwork during a judge’s tenure,” he said.
Both Yim and McGlone said the reviews look for patterns in a judge’s conduct that may need to be addressed.
Retired Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia expressed concern about giving attorneys the ability to review a judge’s legal ability because it provides a forum for a litigant who merely disagrees with a judge’s ruling to impact their ratings.
Legal error is corrected on appeal, Battaglia said, and judges do not want their performance evaluated based on whether the attorney prevailed or not.
Yim stressed that the system in Utah is aimed at behavior on the bench and legal ability is a small piece.