Crime & Courts

October 31, 2010

Judging the Judges: Praising or critical, surveys have value for judges

For years, no one told judges what kind of job they were doing. That changed in 2006. The Eagle and the Wichita Bar Association teamed to allow local attorneys to rate their experiences with the judges. Every other year since then, we’ve asked lawyers to participate in an anonymous, online survey evaluating how judges perform in 10 areas.

Jeff Goering and Phil Journey followed similar paths to the bench, but they've sparked different reactions as judges.

Goering, a former conservative Republican legislator, received the best overall performance evaluation of any judge in Sedgwick County District Court.

Journey, a former Republican legislator, ranked at the bottom of 28 judges in a survey sponsored by The Eagle and conducted by the Wichita Bar Association.

Goering said that he hopes his past stances in the Legislature don't affect how attorneys view him as a judge.

While legislators are free to debate policy and changes in the laws, Goering said politics should stop at the courtroom door.

He cited a ruling he made upholding the state smoking ban in Wichita this summer as an example.

"It doesn't make any difference what I think public policy should be," Goering said. "What matters is this is the public policy the Legislature has decided, and my job is to enforce it."

Goering took the bench in 2005, the year before the first biennial survey. He has improved his rating every year and said he studies the evaluations from lawyers who appear in front of him.

"Truly, it is very difficult to candidly assess judges' performances in any other way," Goering said. "Lawyers are reluctant to come to a judge they have a case before and say, 'Hey, you screwed up.' "

Harold Flaigle, David Kaufman and Joe Kisner have been among the highest-rated judges since the surveys began.

Goering said he thinks it's valuable to compare himself against other judges.

"I think that's the only way you find value in the surveys,'' he said. "You can't look at them in a vacuum."

This is Journey's first evaluation as a judge. He has worked the past two years in traffic, a division that usually changes judges every six months.

Journey said he thinks his workload affected his rating. He pointed to the 50,000 filings every year in traffic and the 1,000 sentencing hearings he presides over each year for those convicted of driving under the influence.

"That's a workload that three or four magistrates handle in Johnson County, but here it's just me," Journey said.

He said the workload can affect whether he starts court on time or has to continue hearings on a crowded docket.

Journey said he would like for lawyers to have the ability to add comments to explain their rankings on the survey.

"This is exactly why I never answered the surveys when I was a lawyer," Journey said. "It's impossible to accurately address anonymous generalizations."

Journey said this survey was taken closer to his time in the Legislature than his colleagues Goering, Eric Yost and Anthony Powell. All came to the bench after serving in the Statehouse.

"I think their time is a little more distant memory, and I think I was a little more controversial in my opinions in the Legislature," said Journey, who plans on leaving traffic for another assignment in January.

Journey might find solace from one of his colleagues, Tim Henderson.

Henderson ranked near the bottom in the first survey in 2006. This year, he's near the top and has the most-improved scores over the past three surveys.

Since the last evaluation in 2008, all but seven judges have improved their scores.

"I think over time people understand I'm trying my best to apply the law, explain my rulings and treat people with respect," Henderson said.

He said his evaluations have pointed him toward areas where he needed to concentrate on improvement.

J. Patrick Walters said he found his first evaluation disappointing but also found the results valuable.

"I will talk with the attorneys to see how I can improve my performance," he said.

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