North Carolina Bar Association Breaks New Ground in Evaluating Judges

September 27, 2013

In 2012, North Carolina was the only state with contested judicial elections in which voters were provided with performance evaluations of the judicial candidates—both sitting judges and challengers—on their ballot. The North Carolina Bar Association launched this innovative evaluation process in 2011. For incumbent judges, attorneys who had sufficient professional contact with trial judges were asked to rate them on qualities that included integrity and impartiality, legal ability, professionalism, communication, administrative skills, and overall performance. For judicial candidates, attorneys were asked to evaluate their colleagues on the same six criteria. More than 27,000 surveys were completed for judges and judicial candidates on the 2012 ballot. The NCBA also offered a PSA to direct voters to this information.

It is fairly common for bar associations to offer ratings of sitting judges standing for retention or reelection, but this was the first instance of which IAALS is aware where a bar association also evaluated judicial challengers. Jordan Singer, former director of research for IAALS, described an approach for evaluating attorneys running for judgeships—which he terms "prospective performance evaluation"—in a 2007 law review article, and the NCBA process reflects this approach.

Since 2012, the NCBA has also offered a voluntary, confidential evaluation program for new judges. The rationale is to allow judges to go through an initial assessment process before their results are made public. The process begins with the chief judge in each district identifying 10-15 attorneys who have had professional contact with each new judge. Then, retired judges and attorneys who have volunteered to assist with the evaluation program interview these attorneys regarding each judge's performance and prepare a confidential, tailored written report. More than half of the new judges on North Carolina's trial courts agreed to participate in the first run of the program.

In October, the NCBA will begin sending out attorney surveys for the 2014 primary and general judicial elections. For more information about the NCBA's evaluation process, check out this article by Nancy Black Norelli, who chairs the bar's evaluation committee and is a member of IAALS' Judicial Performance Evaluation (JPE) working group.