The process of selecting judges
California Lawyer

The process of selecting judges

June 2009

New California judges are appointed by the governor after they undergo several stages of vetting. Once they are appointed, they must seek voters' approval to remain in office for additional terms. Here's an overview of the selection process.

1. Applicants submit answers to an online application. Certain hard-copy documents are also required.

2. Each month Sharon Majors-Lewis, Governor Schwarzenegger's judicial appointments secretary, sends completed applications to one of the eight Judicial Selection Advisory Committees around the state. The governor also receives information from numerous other sources critical to determining an applicant's ability.

3. The advisory committees inform Majors-Lewis of their opinions regarding the candidates' fitness for judgeships based on due diligence investigations, interviews, and reputations in local communities.

4. Majors-Lewis uses that feedback to decide whether an applicant should be eliminated, continue in the process, or be held for consideration later. One standing rule by Majors-Lewis: A candidate's corroborated and sustained lack of honesty and integrity may trigger rejection.

5. Approved applications go to the State Bar's Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE), a key participant, by statute, in the screening process (Cal. Gov. Code § 12011.5). The commission looks at each candidate's "professional ability and experience, industry, judicial temperament, intellectual capacity, judgment, honesty, objectivity, community respect, integrity [and] commitment to equal justice." It also interviews each candidate and then gives Majors-Lewis its official rating for the candidates: exceptionally well qualified, well qualified, qualified, or not qualified. Its decisions are not binding but, with rare exceptions, they are given close consideration. According to the JNE, 6 percent to 13 percent of the candidates it vets are determined to be not qualified.

6. During JNE commission deliberations, Majors-Lewis also sends applications of candidates under consideration back to the Judicial Selection Advisory Committees and to county bar associations that have agreements with the governor to participate in the vetting process-generally, the bar associations from larger counties. Each evaluates candidates using the JNE rating system. At the Los Angeles County Bar Association, a committee of 26 members and a chair convene to conduct evaluations upon receiving a request from the governor's office, explains Clark Brown, the associate executive director. Bar committee members send out confidential questionnaires to members of the Los Angeles County legal community asking for evaluations of named candidates for a judgeship. The committee uses the local feedback to help reach conclusions and returns its ratings to the governor's office.

7. Within 90 days evaluations from the JNE, the Judicial Selection Advisory Committees, and the bar associations are given to Majors-Lewis. She reviews the files of anyone rated as qualified or above and personally interviews those she believes have the greatest potential. Her interview can be crucial to the candidates' chances. A lower-scoring applicant may win her approval instead of a higher scorer, depending on broader criteria that may guide her decision.

8. Majors-Lewis determines the positions authorized to be filled on various county benches, makes her decisions, and prepares to discuss her recommendations with the governor. She also advises the governor's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, and his legal affairs secretary, Andrea Hoc, of her recommendations. They discuss which candidates are best for particular courts and initial their approval. At the final stage, Majors-Lewis meets with the governor to discuss her recommendations. He then makes the final decisions on his judicial appointments.

Clarification: Because the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation posted outdated information on its website, an earlier version of the article cited a higher, incorrect figure for candidates vetted by the commssion and deemed not qualified.

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