Bar Rating Process for Pennsylvania Judicial Candidates Comes Under Fire

March 3, 2015

PennsylvaniaPennsylvania is one of two states (Wisconsin is the other) that is electing supreme court justices in 2015. To provide the public with information about judges on the ballot—whether running for election or standing for retention—the Pennsylvania Bar Association offers PAVoteSmart. This voter information includes ratings of appellate judicial candidates provided by the Bar's Judicial Evaluation Commission (JEC), but a sitting commonwealth court judge and supreme court candidate has called that evaluation process into question.

The JEC rates candidates running in contested elections as "highly recommended," "recommended," or "not recommended," based on a two-part process. First, the candidate completes a questionnaire, and an investigative panel interviews the candidate and individuals with whom the candidate has had professional or personal dealings. The panel then submits a confidential report to the full commission. Second, the JEC interviews the candidate, discusses his or her qualifications, and reaches consensus on a rating. The rating is publicized via news releases and the Bar's website.

The commission recently rated a Republican-endorsed candidate for one of three Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacancies as "not recommended." The commission based its rating on a campaign ad aired on the candidate's behalf in her 2011 run for a lower court and the candidate's alleged failure to answer the JEC's questions about the ad "in an honest and straightforward manner." The candidate responded by publicly describing the process as "unethical, unprofessional, and less than forthright."

State bar associations in Hawaii, Illinois, and Ohio perform similar judicial candidate rating processes to Pennsylvania's. In other states, bar associations offer attorney survey-based assessments of judges standing for retention or reelection. Some bar associations conduct preference polls, where attorneys simply indicate whether they would retain the judge in office, while others ask attorneys to gauge the extent to which judges are qualified to be retained. A handful of bar evaluation processes go further by asking attorneys to rate judges on several performance-based criteria, and state bar associations in Idaho and North Carolina provide such evaluations of both incumbent judges and judicial challengers.