First, no, we are not endorsing specific candidates. We are suggesting that judicial elections are both important and incredibly difficult for voters to analyze. We’ll try to help Louisville voters, but first, here’s some background information. Then again, if you’re in a hurry, just scroll down and look at the numbers.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke at a Kentucky Bar Association conference not too long ago about the ethical problems with judicial elections. While there are certainly potential conflicts that can arise between campaign activities and the impartiality required of judges, sometimes the bigger problem is that most voters, unless they practice law, have absolutely no idea who is qualified and who is not.
In Tennessee, judicial elections are partisan elections, which means that voters at least get to know the party of the candidates. This can yield some interesting results when voters rely on party affiliation rather than qualifications.
See this story (http://www.wbir.com/story/news/local/2014/09/03/new-chancellor-eddie-pridemore/15040201/) about a 2014 election in Knoxville, in which an inexperienced and relatively unknown attorney unseated a well-respected incumbent, presumably because of party affiliation. Things have apparently been interesting in that courtroom since then, according to this story (http://www.wbir.com/story/news/local/2015/10/21/appeals-court-criticizes-new-judges-courtroom-conduct/74356058/). If you’d like to read the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ view of how well it’s going so far, you can read that court’s first review of one of his cases here (https://www.tba.org/sites/default/files/fmmarketing_101915.pdf). Warning: if you’re not an attorney, that will probably be very boring reading. On the other hand, if you are an attorney, you might find it downright entertaining.
In Kentucky, judicial elections are nonpartisan. This might sound better and more impartial, but that means that many voters know nothing about the candidates except their names. Presumably, this system simply favors the candidate with the most name recognition. Louisville voters might remember a 2008 District Court election in which one candidate spent more than 5 times as much money on her campaign than her opponent (approximately $250,000, which was also much more than the norm). This resulted in lots of signs, lots of commercials, lots of name recognition, and a win . . . followed by $30,000 in fines based on how the money was raised. You can see part of the story here (http://www.wdrb.com/story/12204872/jim-katie-king-pay-election-finance-fines). To be fair, it’s also important to note that this judge has done fairly well on Louisville Bar Association (LBA) judicial evaluations since her election, although not as well as the candidate who lost that 2008 election to her and ended up on the bench later anyway. You can see those evaluation results here (https://www.loubar.org/UserFiles/files/2014%20Judicial%20Evaluation%20Comparative%20FINAL%20DRAFT.pdf).
This brings us to the 2015 Jefferson District Court race in Louisville, Kentucky. Due to a retirement, there is an immediate vacancy in Division 4. Instead of the usual primary to narrow the field and general election to determine the winner, whichever of the 21 candidates gets the most votes on November 3 will be able to take the bench as soon as the results are certified. That’s right, 21 candidates! Not even the Kentucky Derby has that many candidates. Good luck, voters.
Fortunately, the LBA polls attorneys working and/or living in Jefferson County to let the public know what local attorneys think about the candidates’ qualifications. The LBA asks attorneys to rate the candidates, and those who respond choose Highly Qualified, Qualified, Unqualified, or Do Not Know Candidate. A fifth result (Not Rated) appears in the results as well.
The official results, which are often quoted in small soundbites by local news outlets, can be seen here (https://www.loubar.org/UserFiles/files/News/2015%20Updated%20Judicial%20Candidates%20Poll%20Results_FORMATTED.pdf).
However, here’s the problem. The results can be misleading. The results are reported as the percentage of total respondents who assigned a certain rating for the candidate, but 2 of the 5 responses/results (Do Not Know Candidate and Not Rated) are not ratings at all. This can skew the results. For example, let’s pretend 1,000 attorneys respond. Only 100 of them know Sally Superstar, whose successful practice takes her to several different counties. All 100 who know her rate her as Highly Qualified. That’s 100% of her actual ratings, but it’s only 10% of the total respondents. More people know Peter Popular, who only practices in Jefferson County, and he gets 150 Highly Qualified ratings, 200 Qualified ratings, and 500 Unqualified ratings. Yikes. That’s not very flattering, but news outlets would typically mention that 15% of respondents rated Peter Popular as Highly Qualified, but only 10% rated Sally Superstar as Highly Qualified – even though Sally Superstar seems to be much more respected by her peers.
This has always bugged me, so I looked at the raw data to see what percentage of the candidates’ actual ratings were Highly Qualified, Qualified, and Unqualified. Here are the LBA poll results (in alphabetical order, like the official LBA results) if you only consider actual ratings.
|Candidate||Highly Qualified %||Qualified %||Unqualified %||Total Ratings|
|Alvarez, Daniel M.||44.44%||47.29%||8.27%||387|
|Bergeron, Andre L.||23.05%||57.32%||19.63%||321|
|Buckner, Josephine Layne||27.27%||42.56%||30.17%||242|
|Burke, Dennis Clay||31.08%||41.89%||27.03%||370|
|Green, James Michael||16.78%||45.22%||38.00%||429|
|Hollenbach, L.J. “Todd”||21.73%||43.46%||34.82%||382|
|Karem, Danny T.||14.34%||54.26%||31.40%||258|
|Kerstetter, Ellie Garcia||16.36%||53.09%||30.56%||324|
|Leibson, Michael J.||16.59%||47.09%||36.32%||223|
|Lerner, Ruth E.||13.18%||51.45%||35.37%||311|
|Partin, C. Fred||15.93%||45.72%||38.35%||339|
|White, Erin C.||40.75%||41.89%||17.36%||265|
|Wyman, Benjamin F.||21.63%||49.65%||28.72%||282|
Of course, this single survey is not the only way to choose a candidate, but at least it’s something. Do with it what you will, Louisville voters.