The Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE; JNE Commission), is the State Bar agency that evaluates all candidates who are under consideration for a judicial appointment by the Governor. (Government Code Section 12011.5)
It is made up of attorneys and public members who represent a broad cross-section of California's diverse legal profession and general population.
Appointed after application by the State Bar's Board of Trustees, the volunteer commission cannot nominate or appoint judges; it does, however, thoroughly investigate California's judicial candidates while maintaining a code of strict confidentiality.
Before the JNE Commission's creation in 1979, the State Bar's Board of Trustees evaluated judicial candidates as a matter of practice, not as a requirement. The commission was formed to help ease the burgeoning load of trial court evaluations.
That same year, legislators codified the commission's role after Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, acting as Governor in the absence of Gov. Jerry Brown, made a decision to appoint a judge. Brown later rescinded the appointment.
But that appointment led to Government Code Section 12011.5, which now requires the Governor to submit the names of all judicial candidates to the JNE Commission for review. JNE has 90 days, operating independently of the bar's board, to complete its evaluation.
To gauge a candidate's judicial qualifications, the commission considers the candidate's:
- freedom from bias
- broad legal experience (e.g., litigation and non litigation experience; legal work for a business or nonprofit entity; experience as a law professor or other academic position; legal work in any of the three branches of government and; legal work in dispute resolution)
- professional skills
- intellectual capacity
- community respect
- commitment to equal justice
- judicial temperament
- communication skills
- job-related health
Two commissioners (at least one of whom is an attorney) are assigned to investigate each candidate for a trial court appointment, while four commissioners, one of whom is a public member, investigate each candidate under consideration for an appellate or Supreme Court appointment.
The JNE commissioners check all information in the candidate's "Application for Appointment," and query hundreds of lawyers and judges by sending out confidential comment forms.
The goal is to obtain information from those reasonably likely to have knowledge about the candidate's qualifications. Those receiving such forms include:
- The candidate's personal list of 50 to 75 people who have knowledge of his or her qualifications.
- A random list of a broad cross-section of lawyers in the counties and areas of the law in which the candidate practices.
- Members of the bench from the candidate's county of practice and the county in which candidate seeks appointment.
- Individuals mentioned in the candidate's Application for Appointment.
- District attorneys and public defenders (if the candidate is in criminal practice).
The commission must receive at least 50 knowing responses from the mailings. The investigating commissioners also interview the candidate. If the commissioners have preliminarily found any criticisms of the candidate to be substantial and credible, they are required to notify the candidate not less than four business days before the interview, thus giving him or her a chance to respond.
Finally, JNE concludes its work by rating the candidate as either exceptionally well qualified, well qualified, qualified or not qualified. The rating (as well as all information gathered during the investigation) is not public.
However, if a candidate is found not qualified by the commission, and the Governor then appoints that candidate to a trial court, the State Bar may publicly disclose that fact.
Also, when the Governor nominates a person for the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, the commission makes a report at the public hearing of the Commission on Judicial Appointments for each candidate regardless of the rating of the commission.