July 28, 2012

Judging the Judges: Sedgwick County attorneys evaluate judicial candidates

Dave Dahl is probably best known for his years as the color man on the radio broadcasts of Wichita State University’s home basketball games.

Dave Dahl is probably best known for his years as the color man on the radio broadcasts of Wichita State University’s home basketball games.

But in the legal community, he’s also one of the most ethical and knowledgeable lawyers around.

That, at least, was the conclusion of the lawyers who evaluated Dahl and 34 other judges and judicial candidates in a survey sponsored by The Eagle and the Wichita Bar Association.

No other candidate or judge enjoyed such a lopsided ratio of positive to negative responses.

At the bottom of the rankings were Linda Kirby and Zoe Newton, lawyers who are challenging incumbent judges. The lowest ratings for sitting judges went to Republicans Phil Journey and Patrick Walters, both of whom face opposition in the Aug. 7 Republican primary.

The survey has been conducted every other year since 2006 to help voters evaluate the performance of those seeking Sedgwick County judgeships.

The survey was conducted from June 5-27 this year; 1,470 lawyers registered to practice in Sedgwick County District Court were asked to rate the candidates and judges on a scale that ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” on such topics as “is ethical” and “applies the law appropriately.”

Lawyers were asked to rate only the judges they had appeared before and candidates they could evaluate based on professional experience. The number of responses varied, with one judge being evaluated by 241 lawyers, and one candidate receiving only 59 evaluations.

Dahl, who was evaluated by 170 lawyers and judges, received more than 50 positive responses for every negative one — a ratio that far exceeded other candidates. Incumbent Judge David Kaufman, who is not up for election this year, gathered 35 positive votes for every negative vote and finished second in the rankings.

Several candidates said the surveys had to be taken with a grain of salt because they are done anonymously. But Rachael Pirner, a former president of the Kansas Bar Association, said she suspects there is more than a grain of truth in the results.

“The complaints that I’ve heard are not coming from judges that are highly rated,” she said. “It’s from judges with disappointing results. Criticism is never an easy thing.”

Dahl credited his high scores with working with professionals.

“We have a great bar here and a great judiciary,” he said. “I think working with people like that brings out the best in us.”

Although he was the lowest ranking judge, Journey said his scores have improved from previous surveys. But he also questioned the results — particularly the 20 people who said they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the notion that he is ethical.

“When so many allege I am unethical it is disquieting to say the least,” he said. “There has never been a formal complaint filed (against me) in my 29-year career.”

He said he suspects that judges who fraternize with lawyers do well in the survey.

“The honor system of the survey is severely flawed. I guess I should patronize, wine and dine attorneys more, like some, to get a better survey,” he said. “The truth is I serve the residents of Sedgwick County, not just the attorneys.”

Although their criticism of the survey was more subdued, Kirby and Newton said they suspect that some who gave them low marks knew little about their ability to practice law. They said their practices bring them into contact with few attorneys.

“I find it interesting and was a little surprised that dozens more attorneys than I have actually worked with filled out my evaluation,” Newton said. “I guess that’s just politics. Still, I am very proud to have been a part of this process.”

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