Letter: Voters, do your homework for judge retention
I enjoyed Su Lum’s Oct. 5 column (“Time to bone up on the ballot,” The Aspen Times) and appreciate her opinions on various ballot issues in the upcoming election. But her penultimate paragraph concerning the retention of state court judges needs correction.
First, it is inaccurate to imply that Aspen voters have any say in “electing judges who don’t even represent their districts.” Contrary to Ms. Lum’s insinuations, we here in the Roaring Fork Valley do not get to vote on “Denver judges.” Instead, voters are able to vote “yes” or “no” to retain only the judges who have jurisdiction over them.
In Pitkin County, for example, voters are asked to weigh in on the county court and district court judges who preside over state court proceedings in Pitkin County. But Pitkin County voters — like all Coloradans — are also able to vote on judges who have statewide jurisdiction, such as the judges who sit on the Colorado Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, which happen to be located in the state’s capital city of Denver. In that regard, Pitkin County voters very much have the right — indeed, the duty — to vote on judges whose decisions can become binding precedent statewide.
Second, Ms. Lum’s column belies a fundamental misunderstanding about how Colorado’s judicial merit selection and retention system for judges work. That system — which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — is a fantastic and exemplary method of choosing judges, and one that more states ought to adopt. Local judicial nominating commissions consisting of local non-attorneys and lawyers vet and interview aspiring judges and select finalists to be sent to the governor, who appoints one of them to a provisional two-year term before that judge stands for retention by the voters. Thereafter, judges stand for retention periodically as provided by the Colorado Constitution. The system is a hybrid of appointment and election. The wisdom of our judicial merit selection and retention system is that it insulates judges from the political pressures of “running for election,” allowing them to avoid having to solicit campaign contributions from the attorneys and litigants who will appear before them and eliminating partisan elections for judges who are to be impartial and free of bias. Still, the system provides voters a say in who occupies judicial posts by allowing them to vote on whether to retain those judges.
Third, I hope voters, including Ms. Lum, do not throw their hands in the air and skip the judicial retention section of the ballot. Ms. Lum dismisses the importance of voting to retain judges when she writes, “What is the point when the informative blue book always recommends that all of the judges be retained?” Of course, the blue book does not “always” recommend retention. The judicial performance commissions that evaluate judges and decide whether to recommend, or not to recommend, retention work very diligently in watching judges’ demeanor in the courtroom, observing their treatment of litigants and advocates, analyzing their written rulings, and reviewing the accuracy and thoroughness of their judicial decisions. I encourage Ms. Lum and other voters to carefully read pages J-1 and J-2 of the blue book and the well-conceived evaluations of the judges, both in the blue book itself and at http://www.ojpe.org. Readers will find that judges’ strengths and weaknesses are specifically identified and addressed so that voters may make informed decisions on their judiciary.
Finally, I thank the Aspen Times and its columnists such as Ms. Lum for drawing attention to the various ballot items and candidates. Voting is an integral part of our society and vitally important to the future of our nation, state, and local communities. I encourage everyone to be sure to register to vote and to update their voter registration information as needed, and to vote in this year’s election, whether in early mail-in voting or on Election Day.
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