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Judging the Judges: How lawyers rate judges

About one fifth of Clark County’s active lawyers rated Nevada Supreme Court justices and valley judges in the 2011 Judicial Performance Evaluation.

The attorneys rated 90 justices and judges, and stories about the most interesting or important ratings will be published in the Review-Journal beginning today. Complete results will be accessible online at reviewjournal.com.

The terms of some judges expire this year, and Nevada’s 10-day filing period for judicial candidates begins Tuesday.

Since 1992 the Review-Journal has sponsored the survey before judicial elections, with the intention of inspiring good candidates to challenge poorly performing judges, to provide a guideline for voters for which judges deserve re-election, and to give frank feedback to judges who profess interest in self-improvement.

Southern Nevada lawyers constitute the evaluating body because they have the knowledge of law and experience in the judges’ courts, and can share informed opinions on how well the judges carry out their responsibilities.

The 4,624 lawyers in Clark County who had active licenses with the State Bar of Nevada were invited to rate the jurists. Survey participation is voluntary, and the 872 who participated represent 19 percent of those attorneys.

Participating lawyers rated judges as “More than adequate,” “Adequate,” or “Less than adequate” on up to 12 traits believed to characterize good judges. Attorneys were asked to determine, for example, if the judge properly “applies the law, rules of procedure, and rules of evidence.”

In addition, the lawyers were asked whether they would recommend that voters retain each judge. These rating criteria were selected, worded and refined in the 1990s by a joint committee of attorneys, judges and journalists.

Some judges who receive low scores have tried to characterize the survey as “a popularity contest,” but the work lawyers put into the ratings would suggest they view it more seriously. Most who rate a judge at all invest sufficient time to rate that judge on all 12 traits, rather than simply responding to the re-election question. Many attorneys write anonymous comments, which are passed along to the judges unedited, explaining why they rated a judge well on some trait or badly on another.

The number who rate particular judges varies greatly, affected by factors including the number of years a judge has presided and the number of lawyers who appeared in their courtroom during that time.

In the busy Clark County District Court, well over 100 attorneys rated every judge, and 376 rated Judge Elissa F. Cadish. There is no apparent connection between high scores and a large number of lawyers rating a judge. Cadish generally had good scores and a higher-than-average retention recommendation of 88 percent. But nearly as many lawyers, 339, gave Judge Michelle Leavitt poor overall scores, with only 41 percent recommending that she stay on the bench.

Each lawyer was mailed instructions to access a survey website, along with a personal identification number and password to protect against fraud. They were allowed access to the site from Oct. 18 through Nov. 7.

The data was collected by the Cannon Survey Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and forwarded to Downey Research Associates for analysis.

One issue analyzed was whether the survey scores indicate bias toward particular judges, according to the gender of the judges and the gender of the lawyers rating them. Statistically significant differences were found in the ratings male and female attorneys gave to only four of the 90 judges.

Men were harder than women on District Judges Nancy L. Allf and Diana L. Sullivan and on Family Court Judge Cheryl B. Moss, while women were harder on Las Vegas Municipal Court Judge Cedric A. Kerns.

But in all those cases except Moss, a substantial majority of each gender recommended that the judge be retained.

According to a 2004 study, at least 23 states either had established or were establishing their own systems to evaluate judicial performance. And in many cities, private organizations such as the Review-Journal also conduct surveys.

Nevada initiated a pilot evaluation project to test whether persons other than lawyers — such as jurors and parties to civil suits — could also be asked to evaluate judges.

The project was related to a proposed constitutional amendment, which would have replaced Nevada’s system of electing judges with a merit system of appointment and retention.

When voters rejected that amendment, the plan for a state-sponsored evaluation went into limbo in 2010.

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