What to look for in a judge

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Shout out to political independents: Don’t miss today’s nonpartisan races — it’s not just a primary. In addition to the party primaries for congressional, legislative, state, and local offices, today’s ballot includes a very important, nonpartisan office which, short of a tie, will be finally decided in today’s election: Local district judges. (Magistrate judges run in retention elections in November.)

Judges impact communities, too often overlooked and underemphasized. They decide some of the biggest moments in people’s lives, both personal and professional. How they understand, interpret, and apply the law impacts families, business, how effective are consequences and rules, what laws are later changed by legislatures, and who gets a second chance.

Several judges are up for re-election to four-year terms, but in Idaho’s First District (five northern counties) only one district judge race is contested — longtime incumbent John Mitchell, architect of the local Mental Health Court, is challenged by Coeur d’Alene attorney Douglas Pierce.

What should voters look for in a judge? Integrity, experience, legal scholarship, temperament, professionalism are nice words, but how do we assess them?

Consider these 10 traits in a judicial candidate:

1. Legal ability, intelligence: The intellectual capacity to interpret and apply established legal principles to facts, and to communicate, in speech and in writing, the reasoning behind legal conclusions; to reach concise decisions promptly, respond clearly, and grasp the meanings behind complex legal questions presented in court.

2. Experience: Either as judge or attorney, a judicial candidate’s professional experience should be extensive enough to show how they handle legal problems and the judicial process. Courtroom experience is essential, but mediation and other legal experience is also relevant.

3. Ethics and integrity, in the eyes of many. Integrity is key to the entire system. The best reputation for integrity and ethics is one shared by multiple groups and viewpoints, not just the favorite of one. Integrity means making decisions based on the facts of a case and the law, setting aside personal and political views, prejudices, and personality. Integrity also means the courage to do what’s legally and ethically right, even when it isn’t popular.

4. Financial responsibility. Financial responsibility shows self-discipline and the ability to resist pressures which might threaten independence and impartiality. Does the candidate have judgments or liens against them? Properly filed tax returns? Bankruptcies?

5. Temperament. A good judge is even-tempered, patient, and courteous. Open-minded, humble, and tactful. Compassionate yet firmly decisive. Exercises forbearance and self-control in the face of provocation (courtrooms can be very emotional places).

6. Community involvement. Nonlegal experience is also relevant, because district judges deal with a wide variety of people and issues. Look for a record of public and community service, and pro bono work (free legal services to those less fortunate).

7. Administrative skills. Boring it may seem, but in addition to deciding cases, judges also must deal with the business end — running courts, schedules, and paperwork complexities is voluminous, time-consuming, and important to get right. A good judge is organized and meticulous.

8. Passion in action. An ideal candidate should participate in proposing and supporting ways to improve or preserve the legal system with active participation in professional groups, such as bar associations.

9. Professional reliability. A good candidate is proven reliable at setting professional priorities, meeting deadlines and commitments, keeping appointments, and respecting the time of parties, lawyers, and court personnel.

10. Listening. Listening skills cannot be overemphasized in a judge. That can be more challenging than it may seem, with annual caseloads in the thousands. A good judge hears and fully considers all views and sides of each case, able to stay sensitive to the “human” factors. Each case, each set of parties and facts, is unique and deserves careful attention.

The Idaho State Bar published contested judicial candidate survey results at Isb.idaho.gov/blog/contested-judicial-election-survey-results.

Not registered to vote, or unsure? Just bring a government-issued or school photo ID and proof of residence (recent utility bill, card or bank statement, or report card) with you to vote. To find your ballot information and your polling place see Kcgov.us/elections or call 208-446-1030.


Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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