North Carolina Seeks to Ensure No Biases in Judicial Ratings

The North Carolina Bar Association is exploring how tweaks in its judicial evaluation process can have real impact on results. As recommended by both the National Center for State Courts and IAALS, the latest performance evaluation surveys included a structured free recall exercise that urged attorneys to think of specific experiences with the judges they are about to rate, rather than general impressions, along with both positive and negative aspects of those experiences.

The exercise is designed to help prevent or mitigate unconscious or hidden biases among evaluation survey respondents, usually regarding gender or race. All North Carolina attorneys receive surveys to evaluate all judges, regardless of whether the lawyers have actually appeared before the judges. Attorneys are asked to complete the survey if they feel they have had sufficient professional interaction with the judge being evaluated. In North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, Malia Reddick, Manager of the Quality Judges Initiative, notes that this approach “opens up the opportunity for biases” to come into play, and the new structured free recall exercise in the surveys could help in situations where lawyers may "have ‘an axe to grind' or 'vague impressions' of the judges they rate.”

A 2012 study by IAALS, Leveling the Playing Field: Gender, Ethnicity, and Judicial Performance Evaluation, looked at the extent to which implicit biases may be a factor in judicial evaluations. The study found few indications of bias in the four states with longstanding programs that were included in the study, but where evidence of possible bias was detected, it came from lawyers. Responses from court staff, law enforcement, and other non-attorneys “showed no evidence of bias."

North Carolina is one of 15 states whose program coordinators participate in IAALS’ JPE Working Group.

Hunter Metcalf is a third-year law student at the University of Colorado Law School and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to iaals@du.edu.