Every lawyer wants to know as much as possible about a judge’s inclinations to rule one way or the other before a case starts. That knowledge base will soon expand as the Judicial Branch is preparing to launch an electronic evaluation system that will gather more opinions from more lawyers about more judges.
The electronic evaluations, scheduled to start in March, will mark an expansion of the current system. As it stands, lawyers whose cases go to trial or involve hearings lasting an hour or more fill out paper questionnaires in which they rate the presiding judge. That practice will continue, state officials say.
But starting in the spring, an electronic questionnaire will allow attorneys to weigh in on judges in so-called “high-volume” courts, such as those who handle arraignments, bond hearings, pleas and sentences in misdemeanor and lesser felony cases.
“It has long been our goal to automate the judicial performance evaluation process,” said Judge Barbara M. Quinn, the state’s chief court administrator. “Advances in technology have allowed us to take this step, which will simultaneously enhance the anonymity of the process and permit us to more effectively and more regularly provide for the evaluation of judges assigned to our high-volume courts.”
The Judicial Branch will ask for evaluations from attorneys who handle three or more routine matters to disposition in front of a specific judge in a six-month period, or make an appearance in a case with a judgment after trial. While all Superior Court judges have been evaluated via paper questionnaire at one time or another, the program will increase the number of lawyers who provide feedback, said Lee Helwig, program manager for the judicial performance evaluation program.
“The new evaluations will give a much more complete view of judges,” Helwig said, “because many more attorneys will have the opportunity to evaluate judges on the more brief matters.”
The state has evaluated judges since 1984. The paper questionnaires, which rate judges on a scale of “Excellent” to “Poor,” are used to make decisions about retention of judges, case assignments and topics for training sessions. The questionnaires ask attorneys to rate judges’ performance on 13 criteria, including the pace of the proceedings, knowledge of the substantive law and impartiality.
At the recommendation of a special panel, new questions are being added. One will involve whether the judge showed an ability to settle the case before trial, Helwig said. Another will deal with whether the judge showed “fairness and equality” to people based on their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.
Lawyers who have handled three cases before a judge in six months will be notified by e-mail to log onto the Judicial Branch E-Services web site. They will be prompted to select a link for the Judicial Performance Evaluation Program Questionnaire for High Volume Courts. The lawyers, including prosecutors and public defenders, will have three weeks to fill out the evaluations.
The new system comes out of the Public Service and Trust Commission created by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers in 2007. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Program Advisory Panel, made up of academics, lawyers and judges, found a need for more information on judges from a larger number of lawyers, Helwig said.
One goal, he said, was filling the need for greater participation. The paper evaluations have had a response rate of 50 to 65 percent. Because the results are relied upon by the Judiciary Committee and the Judicial Selection Committee when a judge is up for reappointment, “having a higher return rate is important,” Helwig said.
Moira Buckley, president-elect of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said expanding the evaluation system is a good thing. “If you think about it, the vast majority of criminal charges resolve before trial,” she said.
Buckley, who has her own criminal defense practice in Hartford, said the information that comes from such evaluations can be useful for attorneys, “theoretically,” because they “provide better insight into the demeanor of judges.”
“A key to the efficacy is obviously for people to use it,” she said. To that end, she questioned how the Judicial Branch will make sure that the electronic evaluations are anonymous, to protect lawyers from feeling vulnerable professionally if they make harsh comments about a judge. “An evaluation will have more practical effect if its anonymous,” she said.
Anonymity was a primary concern of the task force, Helwig said. A lawyer will have to provide his or her juris number in order to complete the online form. But, Helwig added, as with the paper evaluations, the judges will never see any individual attorney’s electronic form.
Helwig’s office will cull data from the questionnaires and make evaluation reports, which won’t include juris numbers. “The judges only see a composite of the questionnaire that includes basic information, like what the attorney’s practice area is and how long they have been practicing,” he said. “Nothing on the report will identify the attorney.”
William F. Gallagher, a New Haven lawyer and former president of the Connecticut Bar Association, recalled that the association years ago had its own judicial rating questionnaires. “The bar stopped doing those, it was very controversial,” he said.
The information contained within the surveys can be very valuable to a lawyer when preparing for a case before a judge he or she doesn’t know, Gallagher said. “It lets a lawyer have a better understanding of what way a judges inclinations are.”•