Nebraska voters will make their choice for president, senate, congress and many state and local offices on Nov. 4.
Officials at the Nebraska State Bar Association want voters to remember that races getting all the attention aren’t the only choices on the ballot. In Dodge, Washington and Saunders counties alone, five of six sitting judges are up for a retention vote. There are 53 judges statewide up for retention.
“The judges are quite a ways down the ballot,” said Jane Schoenike, NSBA executive director. “It is really important to vote for these judges. This is (the voters’) ultimate accounting for the judges they might ultimately be in front of one day.”
Voters simply vote whether they want the judge to remain on the bench or not.
Dodge County Judge Kenneth Vampola is up for his first retention. Washington County District Court Judge Darvid Quist and Washington County Judge C. Matthew Samuelson both are up for retention as are Saunders County District Court Judge Mary Gilbride and Saunders County Judge Marvin Miller.
“A judge is first appointed to the bench by the governor,” Schoenike said. “They must serve three years before they are on the ballot for the first time.”
After the first retention vote, each judge is on the ballot every six years.
It’s a simple majority vote whether each judge remains or is recused from the bench, said Bob Hillis, NSBA president-elect and Fremont attorney.
“If the vote is to not retain, he or she loses the position and it goes back to the appointment process,” he said.
To help voters decide on retention of judges, the Bar Association’s members rate the judges they practice in front of on a scale of 1-5 in numerous categories. Participants include all types of attorneys, including prosecutors.
Results for each of the judges are available at www.nebar.com.
“Since the Bar Association started the poll 20-some years ago, there have only been five cases of judges not being retained,” Schoenike said. “It doesn’t happen often.”
The last time it happened was 1996 when a Supreme Court judge was not retained.
“Voting for a judge is not like voting for other offices,” Schoenike said. “When judges make a decision, they have to rely on law and facts, not necessarily what’s popular.”
She said voters should consider a judge’s legal knowledge and fairness before marking the ballot.
“You want to make sure when you walk into that courtroom, it’s a fair playing field,” Hillis said.
Some of the 11 categories the judges are rated in include: legal analysis; impartiality; fairness; judicial temperament and demeanor; attentiveness to argument and testimony; and working in a prompt and timely manner. Attorneys who practice before each judge also are asked whether their principal practice is in front of the specific judge and whether the judge should be retained.
“We have expressed through that poll the opinion of lawyers appearing before those judges,” Hillis said. “You can see what the lawyers in the community think about the quality of the judges.”
This year’s survey showed Gilbride had a 3.96 average in the 11 categories and a 90.91 percent yes vote for retention and Quist had and average score of 4.19 and a 92.6 percent vote in favor of keeping him on the bench.
Miller had an average score of 3.84 and 89.06 percent of attorneys practicing in front of him wanted him retained on the bench. Vampola averaged a score of 3.9 and 87.8 percent of attorneys wanted him retained while Samuelson had an average score of 4.35 and 98.53 percent of attorneys wanted him retained.
“You’ll notice in the survey that most judges do have an 80 or 90 percent or more to retain,” Hillis said.
Attorneys rating a judge must have practiced in front of the judge within the past two years and the surveys are answered anonymously.
“What’s really important about this is the Bar Association is certainly concerned that all around the state of Nebraska that we have good judges that provide access to the legal system,” Schoenike said. “We want to have good judges and we want judges who are there when needed.”
For more information about the survey, visit www.nebar.com or call 1-800-927-0117.
Self-submitted profiles of some of the judges are available at www.supremecourt.ne.gov/judge-bios.