Judicial races are far down the ballot, yet will weigh on the day-to-day functions of law and society. Judges, after all, make countless final decisions. Judges are usually the decision makers in a trial, while jurors are the fact finders. Judges’ personal experiences, biases and values will affect outcomes with more singularity than lawmakers, and more latitude than jurors filtered out and tasked with strict instruction to be unbiased.
According to King County Elections, there are many reasons voters skim over judicial candidates. Some people get fatigued filling out long ballots and are further demotivated when they don’t recognize the significance of the position. Judicial races are rarely covered in the media, contributing to the low voter turnout for such races.
“We know that one of the main reasons people say they don’t vote is because they don’t see candidates on that ballot that reflect them or their community,” said Hannah Kurowski of King County Elections. In local election years, Kurowski says they hold “Running for Office” workshops to “demystify” the process of candidacy.
The mystifying foundation is our complex and coded court system. There are regional federal district courts, municipal city courts and county superior courts. Appeals courts and supreme courts are higher courts, sitting above the others.
Judges are elected by voters or appointed in case of a vacancy; municipal judges are appointed no matter what. High-court judges receive cases that have not been settled in lower courts, have been appealed or qualify for initiation in their courts, like presidential matters.
Regardless of whether judges serve on a high court or a low court, they are powerful decision makers who we must choose carefully.
“We encourage voters to vote up and down the ballot because local races are critically important for voters,” said Kurowski. “Those are often the elected positions that are making significant decisions about our roads, schools and local tax dollars, for example.”
If you are in King County, this year’s ballot, along with the high stakes presidential race, includes judge races for State Superior Court, King County Court of Appeals, King County Superior Court and King County District Court. In all, there are 13 positions on the ballot, of which only four have more than one candidate.
Why are so many judicial races uncontested? According to University of Washington School of Law Professor Hugh D. Spitzer, it is “because most voters are satisfied having judges who are experienced and fair, and don’t see much reason to switch to someone else.”
When a judge steps down from their seat, the executive head of the jurisdiction the judge sits in — for instance, the mayor for municipal judges — will appoint someone to the position before an election. Contested races are usually for “open seats.”
Races wherein someone might challenge an incumbent are rare, so they could suggest there is someone who disagrees with or dislikes the incumbent or candidate. This election year, two contested Washington Supreme Court seats are being challenged. The incumbents are women of color who were appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee. The chart herein shows the four contested races and what the candidates have done previously.
When judging a judge
While the Washington state voter’s pamphlet makes it easy to access candidate’s statements, there are some things to keep in mind when voting for judges at various levels of the court system.
Spitzer says trial courts need “competent, thoughtful and fair judges” so that anyone who ends up in court feels their case has been tried fairly. Appeals courts, including supreme courts, require candidates who “can think straight and write well” because they make decisions around how to interpret the law.
“Each judge’s background views on major social issues, like racism, LBGTQ issues, sexism or economic concentration, will come into play in some fashion,” Spitzer said. “So, when there are two judges who are more or less equal in terms of experience, fairness and writing skills, then it’s OK to take their background views into account.”
In addition to considering a judge’s background, Spitzer suggests looking at a candidate’s ratings from trusted bar associations. There are many local bar associations: King County Bar Association, Asian Bar Association, Loren Mills Bar Association and Washington Women Lawyers. Spitzer recommends looking for candidates who have a “uniformly high” ranking.
For example, the King County Bar Association has a practice of assigning a qualification ranking to candidates running in contested races from “not qualified” to “exceptionally well qualified.” The evaluation is only used for contested elections and doesn’t apply when judges are appointed. There are 85 members on the evaluation committee. Keep in mind, though, anyone who is not “in good standing” with KCBA or who did not respond to a call to submit materials receives the ranking “not qualified.”
More info on judicial races and candidates is in the pamphlet mailed to eligible voters; in Seattle Channel’s video voter guide: seattlechannel.org/elections; and at votingforjudges.org, a non-partisan hub pertaining to judicial elections.
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at [email protected]. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more of the Oct. 28 - Nov. 3, 2020 issue.