Judicial Nominating Commissions
The judicial nominating commission is the key to commission-based appointment, or “merit selection,” of state court judges. Nominating commissions are currently used in 29 states and the District of Columbia to choose judges, and while their selection, composition, and operation vary widely from state to state, these commissions are dedicated to achieving the same goals: ensuring a highly qualified judiciary, promoting public trust in that judiciary, and securing support for the judicial branch from the other two branches.
- To identify broad-based goals and principles for judicial nominating commissions.
- To develop a model code of conduct to address ethical responsibilities and obligations of judicial nominating commissioners.
With the judicial nominating commission as the initial and, indeed, essential component of the O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan, IAALS has undertaken extensive work in this area in the last few years. We began with a detailed report on why states adopted merit selection in the first place, how the structure and operation of nominating commissions differ across the country, and what some of the best practices appear to be in building public trust in the process. From there, we worked with our O’Connor Advisory Committee to identify broad-based goals and principles that provide a framework within which to establish a commission-based appointment process tailored to individual states. Most recently, in consultation with a working group of judges, lawyer and non-lawyer nominating commission members, and commission staffers, we developed model rules with accompanying commentary that address the ethical responsibilities and obligations of judicial nominating commissioners.
In 2016, IAALS organized a JNC Network made up of nominating commission chairs, members, and staff around the country. Facilitated primarily via an email listserv, the Network is a valuable tool for sharing information and resources relevant to the work of nominating commissions, as well as a useful forum for discussing challenges and potential solutions.
Click here for more information about judicial nominating commissions and the states that use them.
IAALS formerly housed this work under its Quality Judges Initiative until 2018.
IAALS serves as an ongoing resource to lawmakers, fair courts advocates, and thought leaders interested in judicial selection issues, and as a conduit of information and research-based recommendations for judicial nominating commissions around the country.
Michigan: Provided resources and testimony to the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force, which was formed to examine the system Michigan uses to select supreme court justices. For more information, read the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force Report.
Minnesota: Provided resources and testimony to the Quie Commission (a.k.a. the Citizens Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Judiciary), created to study and make recommendations regarding how best to select and retain Minnesota judges.
Missouri: Conducted a training program for the members of the state’s judicial nominating commissions.
Montana: Presented a public forum on how best to select Montana judges.
Nevada: Provided substantive and logistical support to Nevadans for Qualified Judges, the group that backed the passage of Question 1. Question 1 would have moved Nevada from nonpartisan judicial elections to the O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan.
New Jersey: Provided resources and testimony to the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Task Force on Judicial Independence.
When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, she committed herself to two things she cares passionately about: judicial independence and civics education. She began working on judicial independence at Georgetown Law School through the “Sandra Day O’Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary,” a series of conferences co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute in 2006 through 2009.
Through these conferences, various themes and conclusions emerged. With respect to independence of the judiciary, the conference proceedings reflected that fairness and impartiality may be at risk in state court systems, particularly with reference to the selection methods for those state court judges. A commission-based appointment and retention election system is far preferable to contested elections, because it protects fair and impartial courts, keeps politics out of the process, and lets voters hold judges accountable for their performance on the bench.
As her project at Georgetown Law School neared conclusion in 2010, Justice O’Connor wanted to take the next step and begin fostering change directly at the state level. On December 8, 2009, she launched the Quality Judges Initiative at IAALS. We are honored that Justice O’Connor chose to partner with us to continue her work on judicial selection through IAALS.
The O'Connor Advisory Committee concluded its work together in 2020.