Guest opinion: Voters have opportunity to hold judges accountable

Accountability has a certain meaning to a forensic accountant like me. Over the years, I have spent countless hours investigating the actions of companies and testifying about them in state and federal court. The experience has convinced me of the important debt we owe to others to account for our actions that affect them.
In my service as the chair of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC), I see JPEC’s mission as creating a public process that holds judges accountable to the communities they serve.

Across Utah, 59 judges will be on the ballot this November. These uncontested retention elections are straightforward. They ask voters whether the judge should serve another term of office. Unlike my work in court, where judges and juries decide matters, when it comes to judicial service, voters are the ones with the decision-making power.

Voters make a yes or no choice. Seems easy enough. Yet, most voters know very little about their judges because they do not find themselves in court regularly. Well-crafted public policy gives citizens the information they need to make important public decisions. Voters need honest, thorough evaluations of judges to help them cast informed votes.

Thanks to the Utah Legislature’s creation of JPEC in 2008, Utah created an accountability process for our judiciary that is independent and effective. JPEC evaluates judges using surveys of attorneys, court staff, jurors, and allied professionals. It puts trained volunteers in courtrooms across the state to observe judges. It interviews some justice court litigants about their experience with judges. It weighs objective criteria like judicial disciplinary actions, continuing education, and judicial time standards. It collects public comment. If a judge decides to stand for the retention election, JPEC publishes that evaluation for voters on its website at judges.utah.gov.

JPEC does more. It works with judges throughout their terms of office, providing two evaluations per term, to give them feedback as to their performance. Improvement should not wait for elections. Judges should learn early about their performance quality so they may address deficiencies and build on their strengths. When JPEC identifies judges in need of improvement, the judges can then make any necessary changes, thus strengthening the judiciary overall.

Utah deserves the best judiciary in the nation. JPEC helps to make that possible by giving voters and judges important and dependable information. Its independence as a 13-member commission, with members appointed by the three branches of government and requiring partisan and professional balance, contributes to the strength of the process.

Public policy should enable individual citizens to make smart choices about their government. JPEC helps with this role, but it still depends on voters to learn about their judges. This fall, I urge you to go to judges.utah.gov to find the information on judges you need to finish your ballot. Because none of us ever knows when we might need it, the best judiciary in the nation is a worthy reward for our efforts.

Gil A. Miller is an accountant and managing partner of Rocky Mountain Advisory. He was appointed in 2014 to the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission by the Utah Senate and serves as its chairperson.