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So you want to be a judge

If you want to become a judge, here’s how it works. Any lawyer in good standing with 10 years of practice may submit an application to the governor’s office.

The 10-page application forms for the superior and appellate courts are available at his Web site, and contain 61 questions, ranging from the number of years of civil litigation or criminal practice experience, to community service, to number of languages spoken. Sitting judges wishing to be elevated to the appellate bench answer different questions and submit a different form.

The governor has local vetting committees in many counties that do their own screening. Their proceedings are secret.

The governor then sends the application to the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE), a group of up to 38 people, who evaluate each applicant. The commission is an agency of the State Bar, created by statute. The evaluation process, described by one commissioner as daunting, is different for the trial and appellate courts, but applicants are asked to submit names of 75 people who know them well, as well as everyone they’ve litigated with or before or against.

The commission independently seeks input from district attorneys, public defenders, judges and attorneys in the same practice area. If the county is small, every lawyer who practices in the county is asked for input. The goal is to receive a minimum of 50 random responses.

Local bar associations also evaluate judicial candidates.

The comment form asks about the candidate’s professional ability, experience and reputation, judicial temperament, work ethic and bias.

A team of two evaluates candidates for the superior court; teams of four do the vetting for the appellate bench. Each candidate is interviewed by one team.

Anyone who submits a negative comment receives a phone call for corroboration and the candidate has an opportunity to respond.

After 90 days, the entire commission submits a summary report to the governor, with one of four ratings: exceptionally well qualified, well qualified, qualified or not qualified. Any candidate found not qualified has the right to appeal.

All JNE proceedings are confidential and commissioners do not make public the ratings or the basis for the ratings for the trial courts.

Helen Zukin, a former chair, said JNE balances two interests — those of the candidate and those of the people of the state who are entitled to a qualified judiciary. “We want to be very, very careful so there isn’t an error and someone is foreclosed” from a judgeship, she said.

The ultimate appointment power rests with the governor.

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