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Judicial evaluations may be coming back

Virginia CapitolA program for lawyers to judge judges could be making a comeback.

The 2014 General Assembly will consider proposals to revive a moribund judicial performance evaluation program designed to help Virginia judges improve their courtroom skills and give legislators a way to gauge their performance.

The program, in which lawyers filled out forms to critique the work of judges at all levels of the court system, was discontinued in 2009 amid tension over control of the information provided to legislators.

The proposal for a renewed JPE program expressly provides for making public the reports to legislators about judges who are up for reelection. Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, who introduced enabling legislation, said the proposal reflects the input of Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser, who worked with him on plans to reestablish the program.

Loupassi said he worked “hand in hand” with Kinser and with Supreme Court legislative director Katya N. Herndon to craft a plan for reinstating the JPE program. House Courts Committee chair Del. David B. Albo, R-Springfield, also was involved in the effort to revive the program.

Albo said the Supreme Court justices seemed “cool” to the idea of making the Assembly reports public.

Senate Courts Committee chair Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-Williamsburg, said he supports disclosure of the final reports. “I earnestly believe the public is better served by transparency,” Norment said in an email.

“I support a reinstitution of [JPE] in some format.  The particulars will need to be discussed and a consensus developed.  In my opinion too many subjective factors are permeating the process,” Norment said.

Loupassi’s measure, House Bill 272, calls for performance evaluations at the midpoint of judicial terms and again during the final year of each term. The bill would make the interim performance reports confidential, but the final year reports provided to the General Assembly would be considered public records, open to inspection.

The interim reports would be intended for judicial self-improvement, with retired judges acting as facilitators to counsel judges on their approach to the job, Loupassi said.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who helped launch the original JPE program as a delegate in 2002, included a total of $290,000 in his final two-year proposed budget to implement the JPE program.

Loupassi said he hopes the Assembly will increase that amount, suggesting an appropriation of only $50,000 for the first year may have been an oversight. Loupassi said his proposal called for $290,000 for the first year to restart the program. McDonnell’s budget does provide for the intended $240,000 for the second year of the program.

As with the original program, the Supreme Court would contract with Virginia Commonwealth University to perform the evaluations in which lawyers grade judges on various aspects of the job, Loupassi said.

The JPE survey forms asked lawyers to score judges on their demeanor, treatment of litigants and fairness, among other factors.

Legislators originally sought the evaluation program to give them some information when judges came up for reelection. “We’ve got to have something,” Loupassi said.

Before the program, legislators said they often were in the dark about how judges were perceived by the local bar and had no perspective when disgruntled litigants complained about judges.

“We’ve got to have a system in place where some kind of analysis is being done,” Loupassi said.

Making at least some of the reports public is a good idea, said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “Under Virginia’s system of selecting judges, the public has little to no information upon which to monitor the decision the legislators make as to whether to appoint someone new or reappoint an existing judge,” Rhyne said in an email.

Originally proposed in 2002, the initial JPE program launched in 2005 after what was regarded as a successful pilot project. It ended in 2009 as the General Assembly cut funding.

The program’s demise came amid statewide budget cuts but also closely followed a flap over who could release some or all of the information from the reports. A court order signed by then-Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr. barred dissemination of the evaluations to anyone outside the legislature and required the return of all copies.

The court’s order rankled some legislators who questioned the court’s authority to tell them how to handle their duties.

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