Judging the Judges

Almost 800 Southern Nevada lawyers graded judges before whom they appear in the 2008 Judicial Performance Evaluation conducted for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Findings of the survey will be reported in the Review-Journal over six days, and complete results will be published on the newspaper's Web site.

Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Review-Journal, said he originated the survey to help voters.

"Some of the most important votes citizens can cast are for our judges and justices, but most of us have little contact with the courts or lawyers and have little personal knowledge of what makes a good judge. The Review-Journal decided 16 years ago that we needed to help our readers with better information about sitting judges and created the judicial survey, asking lawyers who have personal knowledge about our judges to evaluate each one every election year. It has proven to be a reliable tool, as judges and justices who fared poorly in the survey tend to fare poorly in the election."

From the survey's origins in 1992 through 2006, results were published a couple of weeks before the filing deadline for political candidates. Some judges who were rated poorly on the survey declined to file for re-election, and poor performers who filed anyway seemed more likely to face opposition than those the lawyers gave better marks. But as of this year, the filing date for judicial offices was moved to January, before the survey was conducted, perhaps reducing its effect on such decisions.

Even so, if they were facing elections this year, most judges who did poorly had drawn opponents already.

"The judges who did poorly were those already known to have issues," said Nancy Downey of Downey Research Associates, who conducted the survey and did the required statistical analysis.

The 799 lawyers who participated represent nearly 19 percent of the 4,237 lawyers who gave Clark County business addresses when registering with the Nevada State Bar. But the real rate of return from lawyers who could have rated judges is a larger, unknown number because lawyers are trusted to excuse themselves from rating any judge unless they have sufficient recent legal experience with that judge. Some lawyers decline to participate in the survey because they practice in fields that require no contact with judges. And at the time of the survey in February and March, there were new lawyers who had not yet appeared in a courtroom.

The sample size of 799 means the margin of error is less than 4 percentage points for questions that nearly everyone answered, such as whether judges should continue to be elected as they currently are or appointed subject to retention elections, Downey said. The margin of error is larger for questions answered by fewer people.

The survey was conducted online at a password-protected Web site. A unique personal identification number was mailed to each lawyer, permitting each lawyer access to the site. To prevent anyone from intentionally skewing survey results, each PIN could be used to complete one survey questionnaire only.

In connection with the survey, lawyers were encouraged to write anonymous explanations of their opinions for or against judges, and many added comments about the court system or the survey.

A few of the comments about judges are used in stories about the survey, but most are provided confidentially to the judges as an anonymous job evaluation by peers.

The survey asked for opinions on 68 judges. There are 69 seats on the courts covered by the survey, but Judge Toy Gregory, a veteran jurist on Las Vegas Municipal Court, died shortly before the survey was to be conducted and was not evaluated.

Contact A.D. Hopkins at ahopkins@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0270.