How should I know which judges should keep their seats?

I’m gonna level with you, herd. (Can I call you “herd”? Is that okay?)

I consider myself to be a fairly informed voter. I mean, I vote every election, I diligently preview my ballot and research candidates and issues, I work at the polls. Heck, I even write a blog about voting these days. (Thanks for reading, by the way.)

But there is still a part of the ballot that I get hung up on every time:

“Shall Judge So-and-So of the Such-and-Such court be retained in office? Yes/No” 

Well, how should I know? Judges don’t usually campaign. The media doesn’t cover them unless they’re ruling on something really dramatic. Every now and again, some judge does something that bothers a lot of people, and then that gets covered, but that’s about it. Unless you spend a lot of time in court, and happily, I don’t spend a lot of time in court, you probably have no idea who most of these people are, or what they think, or whether they’re any good at their job or not. How do I know if they should be retained in office?

It turns out that lots of people have this question. The short answer usually seems to be “find someone who does spend a lot of time in courts, and ask them”. Steve Kraske had a recent piece on KCUR on the topic, and his guest recommended that people “talk to their attorney friends”. If you’ve got some friends who happen to be attorneys (or court reporters, or probation officers, or police officers, or maybe even just extremely litigious people), that’s probably going to work out. But say you don’t. You’ve still got some resources.

  • The Missouri Bar Association posts reviews of judges at YourMissouriJudges.org. These reviews are done anonymously by lawyers who argued cases in front of the judge, or who read legal opinions written by the judge. If the judge presides over a court where there is also a jury, jury members also review the judge. Reviews are based on criteria like “Did the judge appear to be free from bias?” or “The judge applied rules of evidence relevant to the case.” Most of the time, most reviewers seem to be fine with recommending keeping the judge in office, but you can read reviews for all the judges up for election in your area, and see if you find anything that bothers you about a particular judge.
  • If you are in JoCo Kansas, the Johnson County Bar Association does a similar survey, except that theirs is only addressed to lawyers. They rate judges on criteria like “Fairness and Impartiality”, “Judicial Temperament”, and “Knowledge of Law”. Their website reports overall recommendations, but you can also get the full survey results. 
  • If you’re in Wyandotte County, your judges get and keep their seats a bit differently. Your county judges are elected — they campaign like other elected officials, and you can get some information about them from our good friends at BallotPedia. You also get to vote whether or not to retain judges for the Kansas Court of Appeals. Nobody seems to do performance reviews for them, alas.

Normally, I’m not all that into the idea of relying on the opinions of other people to make my voting decisions. Here, though, it might be the best option. If you want more information, most of the courts also post online bios of currently sitting judges. This can tell you things like how long a particular judge has held the office, who appointed them, what their educational background is, what groups they’re affiliated with, and so on. Some also include key or recent opinions written by the judge, if you really want to dig into things. Here’s a quick list of some bios for sitting judges:

Kansas

Missouri

So there you are, no lawyer friends required. Happy voting!

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