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Originally published Monday, November 26, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Fix the King County Bar Association’s candidate ratings

The King County Bar Association’s Judicial Screening Committee needs fixing, writes guest columnist Hong Tran.

Special to The Times

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I agree that transparency is needed since it is widely acknowledged that manipulation... MORE
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MANY voters decide whom they vote for based on the candidate’s party affiliation. However, some political races, such as for the election of judges, are nonpartisan. So how do voters who have little or no contact with the judicial system decide whom to vote for?

When I decided to run for King County Superior Court earlier this year, I knew I needed to be evaluated by the King County Bar Association’s Judicial Screening Committee. This committee reviews judicial candidates’ qualifications and gives them a rating of not qualified, qualified, well qualified or exceptionally well qualified.

Based on my experience and seeing what happened in other judicial races the committee rated, it’s clear that the bar association needs to fix its ratings system.

Other organizations such as the Municipal League and Washington Women Lawyers also rate judicial candidates. However, King County Bar Association has traditionally been considered the leader among the organizations that conduct the judicial ratings. Indeed, the governor relies on the association’s ratings to decide whom to appoint when there are vacancies.

The candidates submit a questionnaire that chronicles their work history, lists references, including supervisors, opposing attorneys and judges who are familiar with the candidates’ work. The committee members generally do not know the candidate, so the rating is based on the information the committee obtains from references, the questionnaire and a 20-minute interview with the candidate.

I have 20 years as a legal practitioner with both civil and criminal experience. The committee asked me exactly three questions during the interview. The bar association gave me a not-qualified rating. After a number of judges I have appeared before protested the not-qualified rating and I provided evidence of misconduct by a committee member, the bar association agreed to withdraw the rating and assemble a new interview panel.

My second round with screening committee wasn’t much better. They spent time asking about my choice of Halloween costume years ago. (I dressed as Sarah Palin.) When they did ask about my work, they cast my reputation for being a strong and effective advocate for my low-income clients as a reason to doubt my ability to be a “neutral” judge.

I’m not alone in wondering about the value of these ratings. Seattle lawyer Elizabeth Berns, who also campaigned for an open seat on the King County Superior Court, described her judicial-screening committee as “hostile,” according to an Associated Press report. She further reported that the committee sent her materials for Supreme Court candidate Sheryl Gordon McCloud, the article said. When Berns contacted the bar association to ask for an explanation about her not-qualified rating, the response she received began, “Dear Ms. Allen.”

When I asked for an explanation of my ratings, I was told the committee does not provide an explanation. Although it publishes the criteria it uses to rate judicial candidates, it does not have to explain the reasons for its ratings to the candidate or to the public. It amounts to a veil of secrecy.

King County Superior Court Judge Chris Washington knows that ratings can be manipulated. The Seattle Times reported how prosecutors angry with his sentencing decision, joined to lower his ranking in a King County Bar Association poll. Professor John Strait, a former co-chair of the bar association’s judicial-screening committee, acknowledged the process could be manipulated.

The ratings process must be more transparent. The screening committee should be required to publish the score it gives a candidate in each of the 10 categories and explain the rationale for its overall rating.

The bar association also should give candidates an opportunity to respond to any negative information received from a reference during the interview portion of the screening process if the committee relies on the information in the ratings process. These changes are necessary to ensure that the process is transparent and fair to the candidates and to the voters.

Hong Tran is a public defender at The Defender Association. She is a former staff attorney at the Unemployment Law Project and the Northwest Justice Project.

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