Deciding who to vote for among the candidates seeking to be a Superior Court judge is notoriously hard for those of us who don’t know the ins and outs of the judicial system.
Superior Court judges have the power to make decisions in the county’s criminal and civil cases, and resolve appeals for small claims and misdemeanors.
Public information about judicial candidates is slim because of small campaign budgets and often sparse campaign websites. And of course, these are nonpartisan seats, so you can’t just vote for a candidate in your preferred political party. Figuring out what values someone could bring to the courtroom isn’t simple.
That’s why the Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) evaluates Superior Court candidates every election. It works to dig up information and distill those findings into a rating to help you choose. As one of the only consistent bits of information voters can find on judicial candidates, those ratings can hold a lot of sway, similar to newspaper endorsements. We include the ratings in our guide to the L.A. Superior Court Judge races, for example. But how does the Bar Association come up with those ratings? Here’s what you need to know..
What Is LACBA?
LACBA is a voluntary bar association, meaning it’s a private organization legal professionals can choose to join, unlike the state bar association. L.A. County’s association is a nonprofit focused on providing resources for its more than 16,000 members, as well as legal help for people who can’t afford it.
What’s The Evaluation Process Like?
About 50 people on LACBA’s Judicial Elections Evaluation committee take on the evaluation process every election. Evaluating candidates means a lot of back and forth with the candidates by phone and email.
All candidates get a questionnaire to kickstart the process.
Meanwhile, the committee looks through a candidate’s background, including gaps in employment, past cases and non-work activities. Hours are spent in deep research and conversation with each candidate and their references. The committee will dig into the candidates' entire work history since reaching 21 years old. Candidates are asked 29 questions that touch on a variety of issues, including:
- What courts and law firms they’ve practiced at
- Cases where they’ve tried to get a verdict or judgment
- If they’ve been sued for malpractice or disciplined for ethical violations
- What they’re doing to keep up with the law if they haven’t practiced in the last five years.
On top of that, candidates are asked for 75 references who can vouch for their skills and expertise. Yes, 75. These are professional references, typically lawyers and judges they’ve interacted with in the last 10 years.
Those references are interviewed. The group asks about the person’s skill, personality and experience, such as whether the candidate is active in the community, what biases they may hold and how much of their work the reference has reviewed. The evaluation committee members seek out concrete facts and details — not just general opinions — which LACBA says is crucial to determining how to weigh positive and negative interviews.
When it’s time for the candidate’s interview, which comes after all the reference interviews, each candidate has the chance to talk for at least an hour with a subcommittee. They go over things like aspirations and past cases. If the committee members learn any negative details in advance, the candidate gets a heads up about two days prior. That happens because the interview is when the committee asks about problems.
The full 50-person committee votes on a tentative rating for each individual candidate after reviewing the findings. There are four to pick from: “Exceptionally Well Qualified,”“Well Qualified,” “Qualified” or “Not Qualified.”
Anyone who gets one of the last two ratings can appeal and send more information. An appeal gets them a half-hour meeting with the full committee to lay out their case. Anyone rated as “Not Qualified” gets a letter detailing the problems found by the group. Sometimes, the appeals can lead to a new rating — but it could be better or worse.
Look at the L.A. County Bar Association's ratings. The L.A. County Bar Association (LACBA) is the main professional association for L.A.’s legal community. During every election, LACBA undertakes a lengthy evaluation process for each judicial candidate. Candidates fill out questionnaires and do in-person interviews with an evaluation committee, and have to submit a list of 75 lawyers or judges who can act as personal references. The committee follows up with each one and then gives candidates one of four ratings: Exceptionally Well Qualified, Well Qualified, Qualified, or Not Qualified. If you don’t know where to start when evaluating judicial candidates, start with these ratings — they're included below in the candidate information.
“The number one quality a judge needs is an ability to work with people,” Judge Rice said. “And you need the ability to stay calm, to listen to all kinds of people, to have what I call a proper judicial demeanor.” This is one reason LACBA ratings can be helpful for evaluating a candidate — they take temperament and personality into account in addition to legal ability. One caveat, however, is that these evaluations don’t tell you exactly why the committee gave a candidate a particular rating.
What Do The Ratings Mean?
“Exceptionally Well Qualified”
This rating means a person has such remarkable qualities that there’s no real doubt about their abilities on the bench. To get that rating, more than 75% of the committee (present at the time of voting) needs to agree, according to the committee’s handbook.
This rating means a person has the “professional ability, experience, competence, integrity and temperament” to be a highly-skilled judge. More than 60% of the committee members who vote have to agree.
This rating means a person has the qualities to serve as a satisfactory judge. More than 50% of the committee members who vote have to agree.
This rating means the person lacks one or more of the qualities that are key to serving as a satisfactory judge. Any candidate who doesn’t get enough votes to reach “Qualified” or above gets this rating.
How Do I Know Ratings Are Fair?
LACBA’s ratings are one of the few resources for judicial elections in L.A. County — even our Voter Game Plan guide cites it. While its candidate investigations are confidential, its rules and processes are publicly available.
“We give them a chance to just fill us in, tell us where we're wrong,” said committee Chair Jerry Abeles. “Tell us if we've missed something, or tell us about more people that we can talk to about your qualifications. Sometimes, we have trouble finding anybody who’s ever dealt with the candidate.”
Some candidates have recently criticized the rating process, questioning whether candidates who identify as women of color and/or whose experience is on the defense side are getting fairly evaluated by the LACBA committee, which is dominated by white men, prosecutors and corporate lawyers.
Abeles says there are times when a candidate won’t work with the committee. In those cases, the committee still proceeds with evaluations using whatever information it can get.
Some of the procedures are modeled after the California State Bar’s nominee evaluations, so vetting does happen at higher levels when the governor makes judicial appointments. LACBA’s evaluations are separate from California Constitution eligibility standards, which only require someone to be a member of the State Bar or have served on a court for 10 years before running for a seat.
If there are concerns about conflicts of interest, candidates can ask that certain people not participate in their evaluation. Committee members aren’t allowed to publicly or privately say they’re supporting a candidate or join an organization that’s lobbying to help someone win or lose. They can’t donate money or services to candidates, either.
Abeles says the committee members reflect different roles, levels of expertise, and backgrounds. There are civil litigators, criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors, people in firms of different sizes and those who practice law alone — all on the committee because of their reputation and availability to commit hours of work.
Got more questions about how to evaluate judicial candidates? Ask them below and we’ll get you an answer.
More Voter Guides
City of Los Angeles
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- City Controller: Learn who is running and why it matters
- Measures: Make sense of Measure LH, Measure SP, and Measure ULA
- City Council: There are four districts on this ballot
- Sheriff: Compare the two candidates for L.A. County sheriff
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How to evaluate judges
- Superior Court: What you need to know to make a choice
- Court of Appeals: Why this in on your ballot
- State Supreme Court: What your vote means
- Propositions 26 and 27: The difference between the sports betting ballot measures
- Proposition 29: Why kidney dialysis is on your ballot for the third time
- Proposition 30: Why Lyft is the biggest funder of this ballot measure
Head to the Voter Game Plan homepage for guides to the rest of your ballot.