By Nora Frimann, Office of the City Attorney, City of San Jose, Judiciary Committee Co-Chair, 2015, and Henry Chuang, Law Offices of Peter N. Brewer, Judiciary Committee Co-Chair, 2015
The Santa Clara County Bar Association has administered a Judiciary Committee for many decades. The Judiciary Committee was established to evaluate candidates being considered by the governor for appointment to the Santa Clara County Superior Court and the Sixth District Court of Appeal. The Santa Clara County Bar Association enters into an agreement with each new governor’s administration agreeing to accept from the governor names of attorneys the governor is considering and agreeing to evaluate and rate each candidate in confidence. The purpose of the governor engaging the local bar association to conduct these evaluations is to provide the governor with evaluations not tainted by political considerations and that provide the governor with a local perspective on appointments to the local bench. To accomplish this purpose, the governor’s office requires that all aspects of the Judiciary Committee’s background interviews, candidate interview, evaluation and rating of the candidate remain completely confidential as between the Judiciary Committee and the Governor. How the Judiciary Committee functions and process are not confidential. Thus, below, is a description and insight into the SCCBA Judiciary Committee process.
The Judiciary Committee (“Committee”) is composed of twenty-five to thirty attorney members. The Bar Association ensures that Committee members represent the entire breadth of the legal community including in-house corporate counsel, attorneys at law firms of all sizes as well as solo practitioners district attorneys, public defenders and criminal defense counsel, and in-house government attorneys. In addition to the wide-ranging practice areas, the Committee is composed of members who represent Santa Clara County's many ethnic and social groups. The make-up of the Committee results in judicial candidate interviews that are wide-ranging and often challenging for the candidates.
Judicial candidates are referred to the Committee by the Governor’s office at the same time that the candidates are referred for review by theState Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (“JNE”). The Committee receives the candidate’s judicial application and writing sample, and undertakes background interviews based on the information in the application. A sub-committee of typically four Committee members contact the applicant’s references, as well as current and former colleagues, opposing counsel, and community members. The interviews focus on the candidate’s legal skills, intellect, demeanor, community activities, and any other insights the person being interviewed can provide with regard to the candidate’s fitness for a judicial appointment. Any information considered adverse is shared with the candidate prior to the interview with the Committee.
The Committee meets as a whole to interview judicial candidates. The first part of the meeting is a review by the Committee members who participated in the background interviews. In addition to a brief written report, they will share what they learned from their interviews and indicate anything that they thought was particularly significant. For example, the background interviewers may report on particularly strong opinions, whether positive or negative, about a candidate’s intelligence, potential judicial demeanor, or other information that may help to inform the Committee’s impression of the candidate. Following the background information, the candidate joins the Committee and is interviewed by at least a quorum of the Committee. . Candidates can choose to start with an opening statement about their interest in an appointment and can also close the interview with a statement; some but not all candidates choose to make such statements. Following the interview, the candidate is dismissed and the Committee discusses a variety of factors to be considered in reaching a decision about the qualifications of a candidate.
Ultimately, each Committee member by secret and anonymous ballot rates the candidate’s qualification for an appointment to the Santa Clara County Superior Court or Court of Appeals. The ratings used are those required by the agreement with the governor which are the same ratings as used by the State Bar JNE: Extremely well qualified; well qualified; qualified; and not qualified. If a member’s rating is “not qualified,” that member must provide reasons for that vote or it is not considered in reporting the Committee’s assessment of the candidate. A confidential letter is sent to the Governor about each candidate that summarizes the information learned through the background interviews, the candidate’s interview by the Committee, and the results of the ratings on the candidate’s qualification. This confidential letter is drafted by the co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee and is only shared with the governor. It is not provided to the Committee or the candidate being evaluated. The ratings by the Committee members are also confidential and shared only with the governor. They are not provided to the candidate being evaluated.
The diverse background of the Committee helps to assess applicants who are able to adjudicate complex intellectual property disputes, those who pioneer important programs such as the Parolee Reentry Court and who have appropriate judicial demeanor. Due to the Committee's thorough vetting procedures and the governor’s respect for the Committee, almost every judicial appointment is not only vetted by JNE, but also by the Committee. By thoroughly vetting each judicial applicant for the Santa Clara County Superior Court, the Committee is able to provide guidance to the governor in order to preserve Santa Clara County's strong bar/bench relationship and to inform the governor of the applicants who best meet Santa Clara's diverse judicial needs.