Judging judges.
November 16, 2009 7:49 AM   Subscribe

What questions should I ask a candidate running for Superior Court Judge?

I am a member of a political club in my city. At a recent club meeting we heard from three candidates running for Superior Court. As might be expected at a political club, many of our members asked the candidates about their opinions on various laws and policies (marriage equality, drug laws, three strikes, etc). Unfortunately, that's a bit like asking an umpire who's their favorite team. All three candidates rightly declined to answer such questions.

After the somewhat misguided Q&A session, I approached each candidate and spoke with them for ten minutes or so. At the end, I asked if I could email them a few questions. All agreed.

So what are some good questions to ask? Keep in mind we're talking about Superior Court. Reddit's Top 10 Injustices On The Internets is beside the point. A Superior Court judge does not create precedent, he follows it.

On a more general note, how should a genuinely interested citizen evaluate judicial candidates for Superior Court? They have no record, no political platform, no name recognition, and no press coverage. Do I just go by endorsements?

I should point out that these candidates aren't exactly running against each other. The election is still seven months away and it is not known how many seats will be open. It's possible there will be as many open seats as candidates.

Here's what each candidate has been doing for the last decade or so:
* Alice is an attorney at the public defender's office.
* Bob is senior counsel at a private firm specializing in civil litigation.
* Carl is a staff attorney for a California Supreme Court Justice.

Note: I'd like to keep the names of the candidates out of the thread. No candidate has a significant google footprint. All are probably running vanity searches on a daily basis. If a name is mentioned, that candidate is guaranteed to read this thread. For various reasons, I'd like to avoid that. If you're curious, memail me.
posted by ryanrs to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Note: I have avoided mentioning the name of any candidate or the location of this race. I prefer this thread not show up when searching for a candidate.

(Yeah, I know a few of didn't bother reading the whole question.)
posted by ryanrs at 7:50 AM on November 16, 2009

I would ask them their knowledge of what the current backlog is in Superior Court and what they plan to do to reduce it. Ask the civil litigator what he's doing to get ready for criminal matters and the criminal defense attorney the opposite. Ask the staff attorney about his experience representing clients is and if has little to none, what he is doing to get that perspective.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:01 AM on November 16, 2009

Do you guys work with any people in law enforcement or attorney organizations? Reaching out to them would show you value your relationship with them (i.e. you value their contributions and phonebanking facilities) while also getting some good questions to show the candidates you are serious.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:04 AM on November 16, 2009

Ask how they would approach cases that have no precedent in your jurisdiction. Where do they look for guidance?

A question about their views on the judiciary's role as a whole may or may not be helpful, depending on how forthcoming they are. What do they think is the most important form of guidance when it comes to statutory or constitutional interpretation? Though they'll be following precedent for the most part, new things come up all the time.

You may also want to float some questions about docket management, like what are their views on granting continuances? What constitutes good cause for a continuance? How much do they lean on the parties to work out a settlement?
posted by craven_morhead at 8:06 AM on November 16, 2009

Is the Constitution a guidebook or an instruction manual?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:36 AM on November 16, 2009

Ironmouth, how much choice does a freshman judge have regarding what sorts of cases they hear? Can Bob the civil litigator choose to work on the civil side only? Or do all rookie judges have to do DUI and shoplifting cases for the first few years? I imagine judges develop specialties at some point. At what point does a judge decide to focus his career on family law or something?

Do you guys work with any people in law enforcement or attorney organizations?

Well, I've been arrested more than once. I have also worked with attorneys on several occasions. But that's probably not what you meant. I have no criminal record, but I would say I have an adversarial relationship with local law enforcement agencies.

BTW, this is something I'm doing myself, not as a member of the political club. But the club will discuss endorsements later next year. As the only member who actually cares about the judicial race, I believe I will be able to strongly influence those discussions.
posted by ryanrs at 9:03 AM on November 16, 2009

What a fascinating question, and I wish I had something specific to offer. I will think about it, though.

What, if anything, would inspire them to overturn a precedent?
What related organizations have they been a member of?
Who do they look to as a role model as a Superior Court judge?

I would recommend paging claudiacenter, if you haven't already, as I think she's done some work on evaluating judicial candidates.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:19 AM on November 16, 2009

Here's one question I'm thinking about asking:

Attorneys practicing in the US have a strong tradition of providing pro bono services to individuals and charitable organizations in the community.
(a) How have you used your professional skills to aid those in need?
(b) As a judge, how will you continue this tradition of service in the community?

This could tell me a lot about what issues a candidate thinks are important, what groups they think are being underserved, and what are their areas of expertise.

But is it reasonable to ask a career public defender about pro bono work? Do public defenders even do pro bono work?

Also, is part (b) a sensible question? What sort of professional volunteerism do sitting judges get involved in? I know they may not practice law and are barred from many types of advocacy.
posted by ryanrs at 9:22 AM on November 16, 2009

Who manages the basic functions of the county court system? When call the court to get info about my traffic ticket, and I have to wait on hold for 45 minutes, who's fault is that? How much influence do the judges have on that kind of thing? What about stuff like web access to the court calendar? How are those sorts of programs initiated?
posted by ryanrs at 9:37 AM on November 16, 2009

I have a few ideas:
1) What is your judicial philosophy?
2) Why do you want to be a judge?
3) What reforms do you intend to bring to the court, and how do you intend to accomplish them?
4) What is your actual trial experience?
5) How do you intend to learn to handle areas of law in which you have not practiced?
6) What are your ratings from each organization that has rated you?

In terms of what to look for in a good judicial candidate, your actual best bet is usually the ratings or evaluations of local bar associations. Contrary to popular belief, lawyers assess judicial candidates for merit, not on some clubby insider basis. It is also really critical that judges actually have experience trying cases before juries, because that is a major part of the job responsibility for a superior court judge. If possible, I would also be interested in probing for the candidate's aptitude for case management: trial judges who believe in trial date certainty and controlling discovery really help to make the process speedier and fairer.

Good trial judges are smart, hard working, versatile, and interested in making the process open to all and affordable. They don't have much to say about what the law should be, but a great deal to do with making sure that it is implemented fairly.
posted by bearwife at 9:49 AM on November 16, 2009

"Are you now or have you ever been a freemason?"
posted by dmt at 9:57 AM on November 16, 2009

Regarding court administration, that comes from a few different places. Here, the chief justice of the supreme court has a fair bit of say in how the show runs. As for your 45 min. wait, take it up with the legislature, since that's probably a staffing/budget issue at its core. Basically, freshman superior court judges don't have much sway in those matters.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:30 AM on November 16, 2009

What is your philosophy regarding discovery disputes?
posted by The World Famous at 10:40 AM on November 16, 2009

Trial experience as an attorney, to me, is paramount. Appellate experience is nice, but secondary. I'd ask about their good and bad experiences in court and what made them such. I'd ask them what they expressly would NOT do as a judge, and where that came from. I would expect each to have a pat answer as to why they want to be a judge, so I don't think that's illuminating, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to ask. I'd prefer to get them drunk or inject them with truth serum, then ask the question.

I'm not at all sure how a judge is going to provide pro bono services. (S)he can't practice law and (s)he already doesn't charge more than what the government charges for judge services. Judges have to be very careful generally about their outside activities.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 3:00 PM on November 16, 2009

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