Electing Judges: How To Be An Informed Voter
More than five dozen judges and justices of the peace are up for election in Clark County next month. That includes all 26 judges in the controversial family court.
Most voters have no idea who any of the candidates are, how they think, what they represent. So, how are they supposed to decide who to vote for?
“It is a really difficult problem, especially for the average voter who opens this ballot and sees dozens and dozens of names with no indication of political party, of who the incumbent is. There is just very precious little information on this ballot,” said Rebecca Gill, a political science professor at UNLV.
She helps the Las Vegas Review-Journal put together the Judging the Judges survey, which asks local attorneys to rate local judges in a number of categories.
But since the survey doesn't take into account things like how many times a judge's decision has been overturned by a higher court and doesn't include attorneys who are running for the bench for the first, Gill said it's just one tool.
“I think it’s important to remember this is a really useful tool but it is just one of a number of tools for understanding how our judges are performing, and then of course who we might want to vote for in an election," she said.
Gill suggested people check out the websites of individual candidates to get an idea about who their are. Voters can also consider the endorsements of special interest groups like unions or conservation groups.
However, she said, that can also be fraught with problems.
“Obviously, you can see who has endorsed which candidate but it’s very difficult to know what kind of information that interest group used to make that choice and how rigorous that vetting was,” she said.
Voters can also seek out information about who the candidate is getting campaign contributions from but she admits going through all of that is really "getting into the weeds" for a lot of voters.
Attorney Paola Armeni is a member of the Board of Governors for the State Bar of Nevada. She said voters can find information about disciplinary action against attorneys on the bar's website. They can also find information about disciplinary actions pending against judges on the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline site.
Armeni said when deciding who to vote for, voters should look at the candidates' community involvement and experience in court.
“You want someone who is experienced. You want someone that is dedicated to the community and being a public servant," she said, "You want somebody that will treat people fairly and treat them kindly. I think those are different things that people want to look at.”
For district court judge, candidates must have at least 10 years' experience as an attorney and two of those years must be in the state of Nevada.
Armeni said for district court judge look for someone who has had trial experience, and for family court, look for someone who has practiced in that arena. She added that it's rare for an attorney to have extensive experience both in civil and criminal law.
“I think you want to look for somebody who is smart and dedicated to the law and that will educate themselves to do the best that they can do in that area,” she said.
The question of whether Nevada should even elect judges seems to come up frequently, especially when there is a high-profile case of misconduct.
Gill says it is a good question but a difficult that ne to answer.
“What we’re doing right now is likely the worst of all possible options because… there is just no way for a voter to make sense of all of this,” she said.
The idea of appointing judges has gone before the voters in Nevada before, but has never passed.
Armeni notes that one of the reasons to keep the election system is, it can be difficult to remove an appointed judge who isn't performing well. Despite that, she doesn't like that people vote on judges with very little information.
“I think personally I would rather them not vote because I think voting blindly… you may just put the wrong candidate in there because you just have voted without knowing anything about them,” she said.
Gill suggested there could be a hybrid system where lower court judges are appointed but must be re-elected to stay on the bench. However, higher court judgest that make decisions about state policy would still need to be elected.
Rebecca Gill, political science professor, UNLV; Paola Armeni, Las Vegas Manager, Clark Hill law firm and State Bar of Nevada Board of Governors member