This fall Nevada voters will presented with a ballot question that would provide for the initial appointment of judges. Currently, judges are elected and consequently need to raise money to fund campaigns. The impact of campaign contributions on judicial impartiality, both real and perceived, is significant.
The proposed reform would amend Nevada law to provide for the appointment of judges by the Governor from a list of candidates selected by the Judicial Selection Commission, followed by retention elections whereby the electorate can choose to retain or remove those judges. Currently, judges are appointed in Nevada only when there is a vacancy in an existing term of office. The upcoming ballot question would expand the appointment process beyond vacancies to the initial selection of judges.
In my former position in the Office of the Governor, I had the unique opportunity to observe and participate firsthand in the appointment of state judges to fill vacant positions. During my time in the Office of the Governor, Governor Gibbons appointed six judges to the bench, three to the Clark County District Court and three to the Clark County District Court Family Division. Given the recent media attention to the merits of appointing versus electing judges, I thought it would be interesting to compare how the appointed judges fared in evaluations compared to the elected judges.
The Las Vegas Review Journal recently released its retention scores of the judges in Clark County for 2010. The score is a percentage that signifies the percentage of poll respondents who would recommend retaining the judge. Of the six judges appointed by Governor Gibbons that I was familiar with from when I served in the Governor’s Office, the average retention score of those judges was 81.1%. The overall average retention score of a judge in Clark County (including the appointed judges) was 71.4%.
The findings comported with my impression of the appointment process. The candidates for appointment are forwarded to the Governor from the Judicial Selection Commission, a bi-partisan Commission composed of both lawyers and laypersons. The Commission conducts extensive background research and interviews the candidates for the position. The top three candidates, and the background file on each, are forwarded to the Governor. By law, the Governor must select one of the three candidates and cannot reject all three names and ask for new candidates.
I was struck by the fact that every candidate that came from the Commission was an exceptionally strong candidate for the bench. The process before the Commission tended to weed out the candidates who did not have the requisite background, experience, demeanor or desire to serve the state as a judge. The Review-Journal poll results bore out the impression I had that the appointment process on average tends to result in the placement of highly qualified judges.