Asking attorneys what they think may be an imperfect means of assessing judicial performance in Sedgwick County, but the biennial survey conducted by the Wichita Bar Association and The Eagle provides important guidance for voters and good feedback for judges.
A 1972 constitutional amendment gave local voters in Kansas control over whether their judges would be appointed or elected. About half of counties pick them with a system mirroring that used to choose Kansas Supreme Court justices: A nominating commission assesses applicants and publicly recommends three names to the governor, who picks the judge; voters are then asked every four years whether to retain each district judge.
But Sedgwick County has stuck with an elective system, which empowers voters but also arguably politicizes justice by requiring candidates to declare party affiliation and expecting them to raise money. (Would you want your civil or criminal case presided over or decided by a judge who took a campaign contribution from one or more attorneys involved? What if your lawyer had backed his opponent?)
Unless they find themselves regularly in Sedgwick County District Court, voters have little to go on as they decide between judicial candidates. Unfortunately, that void tends to be filled by special interest groups eager to pass judgment on candidates based on their church affiliation or their personal views on abortion, gun rights, marriage or other hot-button issues. At a GOP forum two years ago, judicial candidates variously extolled the “Republican way of life” and affirmed that they were 100 percent pro-life.
Never mind that judges are obligated to make decisions based on the law.
The survey of attorneys, a collaboration of the WBA and Eagle since 2006, allows those who know and observe sitting and would-be judges to offer anonymous input on their fairness, work ethic, communication skills, ethics, application of the law and otherwise. It can be enlightening; and the online survey results allow voters to track a judge’s scores over time.
Another important resource for voters: the judicial candidate forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Room 132 of Wichita State University’s Hughes Metropolitan Complex, co-sponsored by the Wichita Women Attorneys Association and League of Women Voters Wichita-Metro. These events are not debates, but provide some insight into the candidates’ experience and judicial philosophy.
Maybe the WBA/Eagle survey can be improved, with more of the 1,100 local attorneys encouraged to participate and perhaps with court staff included. Maybe there is a way to make it more scientific and less subjective. But if the survey were scrapped, as some critics have suggested, the voters would be even less informed – and an accountable and high-quality District Court would be at risk.
Sedgwick County elects its judges – for better or worse, for now and perhaps always. Judges and judicial candidates should learn to live with the attorney survey, and maybe even learn from it.