The 6th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance has recommended that the voters retain District Judge Suzanne Carlson and La Plata County Judge Martha Minot. It should also be noted that in both cases, the vote was unanimous.
The judges should take that as a compliment. The voters should take it as good advice.
The 6th Judicial District serves La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties with seven judges. Included are three district judges, plus a chief district judge and one county judge for each of the three counties.
In Colorado, judges are appointed by the governor. They then serve a two-year probationary term before they must go before the voters, who can choose whether to retain them. If the voters opt for retention, county judges then stand for retention every four years, district judges every six.
Before the election, the district’s Commission on Judicial Performance evaluates each judge and makes a recommendation as to retention. The commission conducts a personal interview with each judge, looks at the judge’s decisions, observes actual courtroom behavior, surveys both attorneys and non-lawyers who have appeared in the judge’s court, meets with the district attorney and takes public comments.
The lawyer surveys ask if the judge should be retained, should not be or if the respondent has no opinion. Of attorneys who answered, Carlson got a 79 percent “yes” vote. Minot got 72 percent. Among nonattorneys, the numbers were 70 percent and 86 percent, respectively.
Those are good numbers. That is particularly true in that every adversarial court case has a loser, at least some of whom can be counted on to think they were treated unfairly. (Inmate mail received by the Herald from the La Plata County Jail supports that.)
Those numbers also put both judges, in the evaluations’ words, “above the rating level prescribed by the governing rules to the commission to recommend retention.”
The comments listed were also instructive. For Carlson, the evaluations says she “was described by many of the written comments as being fair, and giving the parties appearing in her court an opportunity to be heard.”
Minot was said to be “fair, treating those who appear before her with dignity and respect, and exercising good control over her courtroom with the ability to handle a large docket.” That last, of course, is legalese for “hard worker.”
It is hard for those not involved in the legal system to accurately evaluate a judge. But then it may also be difficult for those intimately involved with it to be wholly unbiased, by friendship if nothing else. Colorado’s system, including gubernatorial appointment and the judicial-review commissions, is an attempt to create a hybrid mechanism to avoid those pitfalls and give the voters a means to rid themselves of bad judges while at the same time keeping the process nonpartisan and fair.
It seems to work. A chairman of the judicial-review commission once told the Herald that how Colorado handles judges is “a great process,” saying, “It’s a model in the nation.”
It is a process that deserves respect. And in the cases of Judge Carlson and Judge Minot, its commission’s recommendations should be taken seriously by the voters.