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By: Daniel T. Goyette

[Note: The following is an adaptation of an article authored by Mr. Goyette
for publication in the 1991-92 edition of The Kentucky Journal
(Kentucky Center for Public Issues)]

History of Citizens For Better Judges
   With the passage of the Judicial Article on November 4, 1975, Kentucky’s court system underwent extensive reform and modernization. The many changes included the construction of a unified, centralized court system with exclusive judicial power vested in one Court of Justice consisting of four tiers, to wit: a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, a Circuit Court of general trial jurisdiction and a District Court of limited trial jurisdiction. Of these courts, the District Court had perhaps the most immediate and far-reaching impact on the court system in that, as the lowest and often entry level point in the system, it is the court with which the public has most contact and the one which replaced and absorbed the then existing hodgepodge of Quarterly, Police, Magistrate, Probate, Traffic and Juvenile courts.
   In Jefferson County, this translated into the creation of 23 district court judgeships and, combined with the concomitant merger of the circuit court chancery, common pleas and criminal branches into 16 divisions of Jefferson Circuit Court, a total of 39 judicial positions which needed to be filled on a regular and continuing basis. At the same time, in order to increase the professionalism and independence of the judiciary, the Judicial Article required judges filling these positions to serve full-time and prohibited them from running for other elective offices as well as from holding positions in a political party or organization. However, despite the numerous innovations and reforms contained in the Judicial Article, it failed to fundamentally change what many consider to be an unreliable and unsound judicial election process in Kentucky. While the Judicial Article included features of merit selection in filling vacancies on the bench between elections, the ultimate method for judicial selection in Kentucky remains popular election, albeit in non-partisan races. This continues to be the case notwithstanding the growing trend toward merit selection and appointive systems designed to counteract the soaring costs and potential conflicts in judicial elections which threaten the quality, integrity and independence of the judiciary.
      Confronted with a less than effective selection method for ensuring a competent, well-qualified judiciary, and given a substantially enlarged number of judicial seats up for election, a group of bar leaders sponsored a public meeting in January, 1983 to discuss uniting Louisville’s lawyers in a campaign to elect the most qualified judicial candidates. From that meeting emerged an organization which eventually came to be known as Citizens for Better Judges (“CBJ”). Its stated purpose was and is a commitment to the proposition that the public is entitled to a competent, conscientious and professional judiciary. The members of the Citizens for Better Judges agreed to dedicate their time, energy and financial resources toward that purpose and make an effort to remove the financial and organizational considerations that discourage legitimate candidates from pursuing election to the bench. Additionally, CBJ resolved to eliminate partisan politics, personal affiliation and vested self-interest as factors in the election of the judiciary.
Organizational Structure

   Structurally, the CBJ organization has three components: a 30-member Steering Committee made up of attorneys who concentrate in different fields of law but who, for the most part, engage in a litigation practice to some extent; a Citizens Review Board consisting of an equal number of community-minded citizens drawn from the ranks of business, labor, government, education, medicine, mental health, as well as other civic and religious leaders; and an Advisory Board comprised of past CBJ chairpersons and the current chairs of the steering committee and the review board. Diversity of membership is sought in all respects. Past and current members include University professors, the Jefferson County Police Chief, the Principal of Central High School, the President of the Jefferson County Medical Society, the President of the U of L Student Government, the President of the Chamber of Commerce and the Presidents of several local unions, businesses, banks, professional and non-profit organizations, among others. Over the years, there has been active and dedicated participation on the part of members of all components of Citizens for Better Judges, which has contributed significantly to the reputation, longevity and success of the organization.
Interview Procedure
   CBJ’s work begins well in advance of the primary election. The Advisory Board meets to identify candidates for vacancies on the bench, develop an interview and endorsement schedule, and discuss fund-raising and advertising. Thereafter, each candidate who files for judicial office is invited to an interview with the members of CBJ. All candidates who meet the group for an interview are assured that any discussion that transpires during the course of the interview will be held in the strictest of confidence. Similarly, within the organization, members of both the Steering Committee and the Citizens Review Board maintain confidentiality with respect to comments made by members during the interview and, especially, the endorsement process. Early on, confidentiality was recognized as a most important ingredient in effectively achieving the organization’s purpose and assuring fairness in the process to both the candidates and the membership. Without it, the free and open discourse which is essential to full deliberation becomes inhibited and the CBJ membership’s best efforts to thoroughly examine and discuss the qualifications of candidates are compromised.

   All interviews are of the same duration and focus on five major topic areas suggested as critical by the American Bar Association in its guidelines on the evaluation of candidates for judicial office. Those topics include: (1) personal attributes such as physical and mental health, family or financial problems which the candidate believes would affect his or her ability to preside impartially, reasons for seeking election or re-election, public service and civic involvement, etc.; (2) legal knowledge and ability including academic record, experience, professional achievements, continuing legal education, analytical approach, etc.; (3) court management skills such as supervisory and organizational abilities, work ethic, ideas about improvement of the judicial system, etc.; (4) judicial temperament relating to qualities such as fairness and impartiality in the conduct of proceedings, decisiveness, dignity, decorum, compassion, etc.; and (5) judicial integrity as reflected by adherence to the Code of Judicial Conduct, enforcement of the Rules of Professional Conduct with respect to attorneys appearing before him or her, uniformity of rulings, susceptibility to influence, ratings in the Louisville Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation and Judicial Candidate Poll, etc. Throughout the interview, recognition is given to the fact that judicial candidates are bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct in their campaigns for election and every effort is made to avoid questions which would infringe on their ethical obligations. At the completion of each interview, the candidate is given an opportunity to summarize his or her qualifications and make a statement in support of his or her candidacy.

Endorsement Procedure
  After all the interviews have been completed, the CBJ membership meets to consider the information obtained during the interviews, including (1) the candidate’s resume; (2) a summary of the questions asked and answers given at the interview; (3) personal observations and opinions of those attending the interview; and (4) comments of members based upon personal experience with the candidate which are relevant to his or her qualifications. CBJ then follows a written endorsement procedure which is incorporated into its bylaws. Basically, a candidate must receive a favorable vote of three-quarters of the Steering Committee who are present and voting, but not less than ten favorable votes in order to be endorsed. Thereafter, the endorsement of the Steering Committee is submitted to the Citizens Review Board for approval. This approval is based upon the Citizens Review Board’s determination that the interview process and endorsement procedure was fully and fairly conducted by the Steering Committee and the endorsement was made in accordance with CBJ’s bylaws. If the Citizens Review Board does not approve an endorsement, the matter is returned to the Steering Committee for further consideration and appropriate action.

   In some instances in the past, CBJ has been faced with races which included more than one qualified candidate and others which included no qualified candidates. In the former situation, CBJ adopted a policy that only one candidate would be endorsed based upon the rationale that the purpose of the organization was to recommend and support the best candidate for election and, if the organization was unable to make such a choice, it could not expect the electorate to do so. In the latter situation, precedent has been established for not making any endorsement in a race where CBJ determines that the candidates are unqualified and do not meet the high standards for endorsement. It was agreed that, to do otherwise, would compromise the credibility of the organization and defeat its announced purpose. Furthermore, it is hoped that such action sends a message to the candidates which will improve the performance of the individual who is ultimately elected or, in the alternative, encourage other qualified candidates to seek election to that position in the future.

Impact Of Citizens For Better Judges

   In the thirty-one years of its existence, Citizens for Better Judges has conducted hundreds of judicial candidate interviews and invested thousands of hours in accomplishing its organizational purpose, namely to improve the judiciary by educating the voting public as to the best and most qualified candidates for judicial office. By all accounts, and by most any measure, it has been successful. While the traditional lack of interest in judicial elections reflected by low voter turnout may continue, there can be little doubt that Citizens for Better Judges has made a real difference. When the organization began its efforts, it was said that Jefferson Countians were in the habit of “electing whole families to the bench,” such was the power of incumbency and name recognition in judicial races. Several subsequent elections in which CBJ made endorsements contrary to this sort of modern-day Whiggery of inherited judicial seats indicate some break in this pattern due to CBJ’s work. Indeed, The Courier-Journal has referred to Citizens for Better Judges as “the major and most influential civic group interested in judicial elections,” and commended the organization for earning a reputation “for careful screening of candidates before making endorsements.”

   Another measure of success is the viewpoint of the candidates. With rare exceptions, the candidates have actively sought support from CBJ and virtually all of them have repeatedly stressed the importance of the CBJ endorsement to their respective campaigns. In one early judicial race which had a field of 22 candidates, the CBJ endorsed candidate was a well-qualified but relatively unknown attorney given little chance of being elected in his first judicial race. To the surprise of all the political prognosticators, he finished third in the primary, only 300 votes shy of going on to the general election. In a letter written following the election, the endorsed candidate attributed his strong showing almost entirely to the CBJ endorsement. He subsequently sought election to another judicial seat, again with CBJ’s endorsement, and was elected by a substantial majority.

   Perhaps most telling of the impact that Citizens for Better Judges has made on the judiciary is the current membership of several retired judges in the organization and at least one member who later went on to seek and win election to the bench. Their participation is direct evidence of the credibility of the organization and its acceptance as a valid means of determining judicial qualifications and competence. However, in the final analysis, the best evidence of CBJ’s success is in the overall improvement in the quality of the judiciary presiding in the courts of Jefferson County today as opposed to three decades ago. A high percentage of those who are now on the bench were assisted by the endorsement of Citizens for Better Judges. There is little disagreement among both critics and supporters of CBJ in Jefferson County that the public is being served by a more competent, conscientious and professional judiciary than ever before. In that sense, even if Citizens for Better Judges is considered only one of many factors in this development, it has achieved its goal and proven to be a successful method for improving judicial selection in Kentucky.

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