The State Bar and the state government are at war and a potential casualty of the conflict may be the entity that investigates candidates for judicial positions. The State Bar, for two decades, has been mandated by the legislature to provide the governor with evaluation of judicial candidates before the governor appoints. The organization that carries out the evaluations, the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE), has performed outstanding service and deserves to be saved.
It is ironic to recall that JNE was born in the course of another legislative war. Then, it was a battle between Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Mike Curb. To stop Curb from making appointments when Brown was out of the state, the legislature required the State Bar to set up a commission to "assist the governor in the evaluation of appointees or nominees to judicial office."
JNE cannot prevent any appointment from being made, but the law requires the governor to submit names to JNE for evaluation and wait 90 days.
JNE membership requires an enormous commitment of time and energy. The commission warns prospective members that the annual workload is 400 to 500 hours or 55 working days. Despite that warning, membership on JNE is much sought after and the board of governors has many qualified people to select from. There have been some mistakes in the past selection of commissioners, but the process has been improved significantly in the last two years.
The program is carried out at no expense to the citizens that it serves. The State Bar -- not taxpayers -- pays for the administrative expense, currently around $400,000 annually. The biggest benefit to the taxpayers, however, is the contribution in time by the individual commissioners.
Most of the time, the governor is not personally acquainted with prospective judges and help is needed in gathering information on candidates. The attorneys and judges of this state are the best source of information for the governor. JNE is a statewide, broad-based commission which has developed a systematic approach to its evaluations.
There has been extensive criticism of JNE, much from people who have not received a favorable rating. In an objective view of the process, however, one has to conclude that not everyone who wants to be a judge is really qualified. JNE has found approximately 24 percent, on average, of the candidates not qualified. Whatever the correct figure should be, we know one thing: We all want a very high-quality judiciary, so some people have to be rejected.
Two years ago, Gov. Wilson made a celebrated appellate appointment of a candidate found not qualified by JNE, the first time this ever occurred. Public sentiment favored the governor. Wilson's bold action effectively challenged the idea that the State Bar has some sort of "veto by publicity" of the appointment power. This means the system works. JNE does its job of advising, but the governor retains the ultimate power of appointment.
There has also been justifiable criticism resulting from mistakes that JNE has made. Any volunteer organization carrying out such a high-profile task with such a high volume of business is likely to make mistakes some of the time. In response to the criticisms, however, the bar instituted substantial changes in the rules and procedures. The current fight over State Bar funding interrupted consideration of further reforms.
JNE may have been born a bastard son in the course of a political battle, and it may have stumbled and fallen in its growing years, but now it is a strong and valuable ally to the people of California who want to have the best judges that can be found.
Justice Jim Ward sits on the 4th District Court of Appeals in San Bernardino and is a former chair of JNE.