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Judge evaluations expand to appellate bench

Peter Vieth//May 1, 2017

Judge evaluations expand to appellate bench

Peter Vieth//May 1, 2017//

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judge1_mainThe Supreme Court of Virginia is test driving a new aspect of its Judicial Performance Evaluation program. Lawyers and circuit judges are being asked to evaluate appellate judges for the first time in a pilot project involving three jurists.

The process will be similar to that used for measuring the performance of trial court judges. Lawyers are asked to complete surveys rating the judges on a number of performance factors.

However, the survey for appellate jurists will add a section asking attorneys about opinions authored by the justice or judge within the past three years, according to a memo to Virginia lawyers from Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons.

Lower court judges will be surveyed, as well. The opinion section will be sent to all active circuit judges for their evaluation of recent appellate opinions.

Appellate opinions also will come under scrutiny from an Appellate Evaluation Committee, Lemons said. The panel is made up of retired or senior Supreme Court justices, retired or senior Court of Appeals judges, retired circuit judges and a law school professor.

The evaluated judge or justice picks opinions for review from specific categories. Committee members will independently review those opinions and then meet to develop a consensus.

First surveys for appellate judges

Although appellate judge evaluations were contemplated in the early 2000s, they have not taken place yet, Lemons said. He said the duties for appeals court judges are different from those of trial judges.

“There must be corresponding differences in the way that they are evaluated,” Lemons wrote.

“Using this multi-faceted approach, we endeavor to create a reliable view of the appellate jurist’s performance, which will be valuable to the individual for self-improvement and to the General Assembly for re-election decisions,” Lemons said. “As with trial judges, interim evaluations will be confidential and end-of-term evaluations will be available to the public,” he added.

The survey questions for appellate opinions ask whether a judge’s opinions adequately explain the basis of decisions, provide clear direction to the lower court and clearly set forth any rules of law for future cases.

Other questions ask whether opinions accurately present the facts and the procedural history of a case and whether the opinions are clear and appropriate in tone.

Three pilot participants

Planning for appellate surveys has been underway since 2016. A subcommittee of the JPE Advisory Committee, chaired by Court of Appeals Judge Teresa M. Chafin, looked at programs in other states and recommendations from a 2013 University of Denver study.

The full JPE Advisory Committee is chaired by Justice Cleo E. Powell.

Lemons, Powell and Chafin are the three subjects of evaluation in the pilot appellate evaluation process now underway. Adjustments may be made before the appellate survey process goes into full effect in 2018, Lemons said.

The JPE program provides both a self-improvement resource for judges and information for the General Assembly to use in the judicial re-election process. More than 350 evaluations have been completed since 2014 when the program was revived.

“The JPE Program is an important tool for Virginia’s judges and for the General Assembly,” Lemons said. “It is my hope that you, as members of the Bar, will continue to support the Program by completing surveys you may receive for trial court judges, and now appellate judges and justices,” Lemons said in his April 18 memo.

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