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VOL. 122 | NO. 236 | Wednesday, December 12, 2007

County's Judicial System Receives Grades

By Bill Dries

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New evaluations of 84 local judges, referees and judicial commissioners by the attorneys who practice before them show more interest in ranking Circuit Court judges than in ranking divorce referees.

Of 2,700 lawyers who received the evaluations from the Memphis Bar Association, 437 took part in the most recent evaluations that are done once every two years. Attorneys are asked only to evaluate those courts they've appeared in during the two years since the last evaluation. This was the first year that attorneys could complete the evaluation online. It was also the first year judicial commissioners were included in the process.

(You can see the evaluations in pdf format by clicking here.)

More than 200 participants graded the nine Circuit Court judges. Fewer than 100 rated the nine referees.

The ground rules include a 10-point scale for grading, with 10 being the top score in each of the 12 categories.

Among the highlights:

  • Circuit Court Judge Kay Robilio and Criminal Court Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett each received the lowest overall score of 5.4.
  • Criminal Court Judge W. Mark Ward, Divorce Referee Lee Wilson and Judicial Commissioner John Marshall tied for the top overall score of 9.7.
  • Wilson also received the only 10 in any category, scoring at the top for being available for business during normal working hours.
  • The lowest score in any of the categories was for Blackett who received a 4 for "convenes court promptly."

The bar's goal in the grading process is to "apprise the public about the administration of justice," said Anne Fritz, MBA executive director.

But the rankings remain controversial. In recent years, some judges with low scores have complained of racial and gender bias among participating attorneys.

Robilio will mark her 25th year on the bench in 2008.

"Women and minorities - let's face it - sexism, racism and ageism are not dead. It's unfortunate, but it's a fact of life and it's a part of any institution," she said.

"I am now the first older woman to be sitting in the Shelby County Courthouse. That's never happened before. That requires, shall we say, a bit of an adjustment."

Blackett did not respond by press time.Ward, who in 2006 won election to his first full eight-year term of office, thought the scoring might be a bit tougher.

"I'm of course pleased to have gotten that kind of score. I'm happy that the attorneys that practice before me have confidence in me," he said. "I did not really expect to get that high of a score. But I am very happy about it."

The bar association has been conducting the evaluations since 1987. The survey went to the two-year model starting in 2001.

"I think it's a good way to let the judges know what they need to work on, at least from the lawyers' perspective that practice before them," Ward said. "I think that having the lawyers do that evaluation for the judges is much more beneficial than any kind of survey of the general public because the lawyers understand that they are going to win some and they're going to lose some."

But Robilio said there are other factors.

She pointed to complimentary letters from jurors and her service outside the courtroom including more than 20 years of hosting a program about legal issues on cable television.

"It has been very much a part of who I am as a judge to not only be accessible in the community, but to make sure that my actions reflect well and would enhance the public's perception of the level of professionalism in our community," Robilio said.

"On any objective level, I think that I have every reason to be proud of my service in office. I really try to touch all of the bases."

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