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Minority ratings for Superior Court appointments encouraged

With the pending passage of legalized marriage, several Washington state judges up for appointment and local Superior Court judges facing re-election later this year, voters should pay attention to what minority groups think of the candidates.

Minority bar associations throughout the state are advocating for their community’s interests on the bench by “vetting” judges or judicial candidates through its rankings process, which involves an interview of the candidate, checking professional references, including opposing council, and reviewing the candidate’s legal career through the lens of minority issues.

“Voting for judges is tough, even if you are an experienced attorney,” Andy Sachs, board member of the GLBT Bar Association of Washington said. “What a judicial candidate is allowed to talk about is so narrow in scope, sometimes you are just reduced to looking at their resume, seeing where they went to law school and that’s all you get.”

For example, a Kitsap County judicial candidate may send materials to be evaluated by the Asian Bar Association of Washington or Washington Women Lawyers to see how they measure up to those groups’ criteria.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office encouraged all Kitsap County Superior Court candidates submit themselves to as many minority ratings as possible before the Feb. 17 deadline.

“To her credit, the governor has made it clear that when she’s in a position to appoint, she wants to see the minority bar ratings in addition to more traditional ratings,” Sachs said.

Candidates are rated “not qualified,” “qualified,” “well-qualified,” or “exceptionally well-qualified” based on committee vote. Ratings are valid for two to three years. Results are reported directly to the governor’s office, the Kitsap County Bar Association and posted online for the public.

However, few sitting judges in Kitsap County have actually submitted themselves to minority bar ratings.

Of the eight superior court judges, seven were elected in 2008 unopposed leaving seemingly little need for the minority ratings.

Superior Court Judge Jeanette Dalton is the one judge who has been vetted, she received a “well-qualified” rating from one minority group, Washington Women Lawyers.

Whether or not candidates in the running for Kitsap County Superior Court appointments have undergone evaluations is confidential until their ratings are published, said Rebecca Glasgow, chair of Washington Women Lawyers.

“I have not had the opportunity to rate anyone yet,” said Stuart Pixley, chair of Washington Attorneys with Disabilities association. “But we definitely think that people in power in the legal community need to pay attention to disability issues.”

This is also an important year for QLaw, which advocates gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender sensitivity, with the senate passing same-sex legislation Feb. 1, Sachs said.

“We have certain issues we are likely to face. The more educated the bench can be, the more equitable the outcome. It’s not necessarily “out,” gay judges that have to do that, just more robust bench education,” Sachs said.

Support of immigrant communities and demonstrated awareness of difficulties for non-native English speakers in the courtroom are important to the Joint Asian Evaluations Committee and something they look for when rating, said Janet Kim Lin, president of the committee

Lin explained that it is important for judges to submit themselves to ratings for two reasons. First, it is a “public service” which helps their constituents make informed decisions. Second, having a conversation with a panel of people helps them become aware of what justice issues are important to the minorities.

“It reminds them that they are in the courtroom because they are there to serve the community,” Lin said.

Pixley said that one reason that candidates do not submit themselves to review is because the process can be lengthy and many of the organizations are in Seattle.

Groups such as the Latino Bar Association, GLBT and Joint Asian Evaluations Committee are trying to make the process easier by partnering together so that candidates can make one trip and be evaluated for multiple ratings.

Lin said that the committee is attempting to help with turn around time by meeting at least once a month and seeing all candidates on a first-come-first-served basis. They will also work with any candidates that need to make deadlines for specific judicial appointments.

“Kitsap County would not be alone in needing a little encouragement to seek ratings,” Sachs said. “There’s room for improvement across the board.”

To view ratings for sitting Kitsap County judges visit, www.votingforjudges.org.

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