Most Americans undergo job evaluations, and there is no reason why judges should not do the same. Judicial performance evaluation (JPE) processes were first developed in the 1980s and provide a foundation for states to assess the job performance of judges. Today, JPE programs continue to focus on the right goals—politically neutral qualities of judging like impartiality, transparency, and consistency, and accountability for job performance instead of the specific decisions a judge makes—but updating their evaluation methods is essential. Current JPE processes no longer fully capture the experience of modern court users, the needs of modern judges, or the expectations of modern voters. IAALS’ JPE 2.0 project will help JPE programs update their approaches to reflect modern realities, while remaining accurate, trusted, and relevant.
A Primer on JPE: This IAALS white paper discusses the general purposes and history of JPE; the various evaluation criteria, tools, and procedures used in JPE programs; the varying perspectives on JPE; and issues in the realm of JPE warranting focused consideration going forward. Read and download here.
Objectives of JPE 2.0:
- To develop a consensus framework on the purpose and goals of JPE programs in the modern era.
- To identify strengths and weaknesses of existing tools used to measure judicial performance, and identify better mechanisms to capture the experience of court users, the needs of judges, and the expectations of voters.
- To develop new best practices and recommendations.
JPE programs advance several different important policy goals, including:
- Providing feedback and tools for judicial self-improvement
- Promoting public confidence in the judiciary
- Informing voters about judicial performance before elections
While JPE programs are state-specific, all adhere closely to the criteria that judges should be evaluated on the process of judging rather than specific case outcomes. More specifically, the criteria focus on qualities that anyone would demand of a good judge: excellent legal ability and legal knowledge, integrity and impartiality, strong communication skills, professional temperament, and high administrative capacity. IAALS’ research has highlighted a clear public consensus for this vision.
Despite their critical importance, JPE programs have suffered from waning enthusiasm in the past decade, with some critics expressing concern about the accuracy and validity of surveys and the lack of overall transparency in the process. Some critics outside the judiciary suggest that JPE programs fail to account for judicial discipline or judicial ideology. Additionally, changes in technology and society have altered the public’s perception of—and relationship with—today’s courts, and JPE programs must adapt. Even longstanding and well-regarded JPE programs need to update their approaches to remain accurate, trusted, and relevant.
JPE 2.0 represents an effort to address these issues, by thinking creatively about how to maintain the core goals of JPE while also being responsive to emerging best practices and legitimate concerns about antiquated techniques. With the assistance of a Task Force comprised of leaders of JPE programs around the country, IAALS will identify the issues and problems to be addressed by the next generation of JPE, conduct comprehensive research with courts nationwide, and publish new recommendations for modern JPE programs—creating an empirically based foundation for JPE 2.0.
Prior Guidelines for Effective JPE:
Since its founding, IAALS has been at the forefront of efforts to improve and expand programs for evaluating the performance of state and federal court judges. We have earned a reputation as the “go to” group for research, recommendations, and practical assistance in the JPE field. We have accomplished this by serving, in a number of contexts, as a convener of JPE program administrators, judges, lawmakers, and scholars who are committed to promoting and ensuring effective judicial performance evaluation in states around the country.
IAALS continues to serve 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 performance evaluation programs around the country.
As part of our O'Connor Judicial Selection Plan, we recommend that judges are evaluated near the end of their term by people who have contact with and knowledge of their performance. Diverse groups of people who use the court system are surveyed, such as attorneys, litigants, jurors, witnesses, court employees, law enforcement officials, and victims. The survey asks about the clarity and impartiality of judges’ rulings, and the way judges manage their cases and interact with others.
A judicial performance evaluation commission reviews the surveys and writes a summary of the findings, rating how well judges perform their responsibilities and whether or not judges are recommended for retention. The evaluation is then made available to the public in a timely fashion before the retention election.
As we develop our new recommendations for JPE 2.0, IAALS offers these prior recommendations for effective judicial performance evaluation (JPE):
- JPE programs should publicly disseminate regular evaluations of the performance of individual judges, based on criteria generally understood to be characteristics of a good judge:
- Command of relevant substantive law and procedural rules
- Impartiality and freedom from bias
- Clarity of oral and written communications
- Judicial temperament that demonstrates appropriate respect for everyone in the courtroom
- Administrative skills, including competent docket management
- Appropriate public outreach
- JPE of appellate judges should include a process for evaluating the legal reasoning and analysis, fairness, and clarity of a selection of the judge’s written opinions, without regard to the particular outcomes reached.
- Evaluations should be completed by people who have interacted directly with the judges in the courtroom and in chambers.
- The entity responsible for administrating the JPE process should be viewed as independent from other entities in performing its role. It should not be directly affiliated with the judicial branch.
- Like judicial nominating commissions, the members of a judicial performance evaluation commission should be selected by multiple appointing authorities and be comprised of a majority of lay members. It should reflect diversity, be politically, ideologically, and geographically balanced, and the terms of its members should be staggered.
- As part of JPE, judges should receive regular training. In addition to basic and broad judicial education, education programs should be tailored to the extent possible to the areas in which judges have been found wanting in their respective performance evaluations.
Prior Resources for Creating Effective JPE Programs:
- Transparent Courthouse Revisited: An Updated Blueprint for Judicial Performance Evaluation provides a menu of recommended practices and tools for designing and implementing a judicial performance evaluation program that fosters legitimacy in the eyes of the public and the judges.
- Judges Aren't Sexy: Engaging and Educating Voters in a Crowded World identifies a range of strategies for communicating JPE results to voters, including social media strategy, templates for the presentation of JPE results, and recommendations for coalition building.
- Leveling the Playing Field Gender, Ethnicity, and Judicial Performance Evaluation offers recommendations for minimizing the potential that implicit biases may come into play during the JPE process and describes a model process for developing JPE surveys.
- December 1, 2023
- November 30, 2023
- July 26, 2023
- IAALS Moves Forward with JPE 2.0, an Initiative to Improve and Expand Programs for Evaluating the Performance of State Court JudgesJuly 18, 2022
- Judicial Performance Evaluation Programs Will Benefit from COVID-Induced Changes to Court OperationsMarch 4, 2021