The state Supreme Court has dissolved the Committee on Judicial Performance, which three decades ago was tasked with developing a rubric to evaluate Superior Court judges.
With the Judicial Performance Program running smoothly under the auspices of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the committee’s task was considered accomplished.
“The program is all set. It works exactly as it’s supposed to work,” says judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort.
The court issued a series of orders abolishing the committee and revising the rules that define the program, which is designed to help judges sharpen their skills and provide information to the other branches of government that consider judges for tenure after seven years on the bench.
Administrators survey lawyers anonymously about judges before whom they have handled matters, using 30 metrics falling into categories of legal ability, judicial management skills and comportment. Appellate judges also are surveyed about judges whose appealed rulings they considered.
Judges are evaluated at the end of their second year after appointment, and again in the sixth year.
The results are shared with the subject judges, the assignment judges, the Supreme Court, the governor’s office, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Judicial Evaluation Commission, a body of three or more retired judges that assists individual judges and advises other bodies. The results typically are kept confidential.
The evaluations are handled by the AOC’s Judicial Education Office. Deirdre Naughton, director of Professional and Governmental Services, oversees the program.
On Oct. 23, the court issued an order to delete Rule 1:35A-1, which established the committee.
The provision directed the court to appoint a committee of at least six Superior Court judges, at least three attorneys and at least two members of the public. The judges were to represent the Appellate Division; the Civil, Criminal, Family and General Equity parts; and the assignment judges.
The committee was to report “periodically” to the court about the program.
Companion orders removed all reference to the committee in Rule 1:35A-2 and -3, which describe the program’s functions.
Program administrators have been and will continue to report directly to the court, which could make program changes if needed down the line, Comfort says.
New Jersey State Bar Association President Kevin McCann did not return a call seeking comment.
The most recent members’ terms expired on Aug. 31. There were a total of 12 members, including Justice Barry Albin, the chairman.
Rule 1:35A-1 was adopted in a June 1988 amendment, but the committee was in existence well before that.
In 1978, Chief Justice Richard Hughes appointed the Committee on Judicial Evaluation and Performance, a special study panel chaired by Justice Alan Handler, to consider the need for a judicial evaluation program.
In a 1979 report, Handler recommended adoption of a formal evaluation program.
Based on these recommendations, the Supreme Court officially formed the Committee on Judicial Performance by court order the next year.
The Law Journal editorial board lauded the move, pointing to the recent “heightened call from both the public and the legal profession for the creation and implementation of a rational plan to evaluate judicial performance.”
A pilot program began in August 1983, when the committee published a survey questionnaire in the Law Journal. The survey asked for practitioners who had recently appeared before Camden, Middlesex and Monmouth County judges to rate them.
After the first results appeared in a March 1984 report, Handler pushed for expansion of the program. In May 1985, an American Bar Association study commission gave the pilot program a stamp of approval.
In February 1986, the committee recommended that the program become permanent. The Supreme Court fielded various concerns from judges and lawyers but ultimately approved it for statewide implementation that November.
The court, then headed by Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, “accept[ed] the conclusion of the committee that it is appropriate to go forward at this time with concerted efforts to improve judicial performance, and that a permanent program to evaluate judicial performance on a regular basis will be a vital and constructive element of such efforts.”
The court directed the committee to begin evaluations of all judges who had been seated for from two to four years, expand its membership, oversee implementation and administration, and function as an advisory body to the court.
Handler was instructed to continue chairing the committee. Ground-level administrative duties, however, were assigned to Richard Saks, chief of the AOC’s Judicial Education Office, who had coordinated the pilot program. He was designated program director. An AOC statistician was ordered to assist Saks.
The court said the program could “be undertaken and effectuated with modest staffing at reasonable costs” and would “achieve its purposes without sacrificing judicial independence or integrity.”
The court also directed its Committee on Judicial Education to begin implementing new instructional programs for judges.
In November 1988, the Law Journal announced it would conduct its own statewide judicial survey.
Wilentz vehemently objected, calling it “a disservice to the bar, the bench, and the public” and its polling methods “adapted from consumer marketing techniques … singularly inappropriate to the evaluation of a free and independent judiciary.”
The Law Journal survey was first published in 1989. The most recent survey, published in September, is its sixth.