1. Application Process
How can I find out about court vacancies?
When a judge retires or resigns, notice of a court vacancy goes through Ron Gordon’s office at the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The office has 10 days to make information about the vacancy public, which is done by posting on their website (www.justice.utah.gov), sending a postcard to all members of the Utah State Bar and sending an email message to all Bar members.
What are the steps in the process?
After a vacancy is announced, at least 30 days must be given for those who are interested to file their applications with the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The nominating commission for the court with the vacancy has 45 days after its first meeting to submit names of nominees. Five names are sent to the governor for district court positions (seven for appellate court positions), and the governor has 30 days in which to conduct interviews and select someone whose name is sent to the Utah State Senate for confirmation. The Senate has 60 days to approve or reject the candidate.
What is the application like?
The current application can be viewed at www.justice.utah.gov. It is very detailed and great care should be taken to make sure all the information is accurate. You may wish to apply several times, and any discrepancies among the applications will be noted and you will have to explain them. To prepare for applying, you may wish to do advance planning and keep track of judges you have appeared before and opposing counsel in all of your cases. It is recommended that you have friends and colleagues review your application before you submit it. It will be examined by both lawyers and non-lawyers and should be used to sell yourself to both.
What common mistakes are made in filling out the application?
Applicants often do not follow the directions. For example, they may fail to provide an original and 8 copies. They may not answer the question that is asked. They may bind the application when the instructions clearly say not to (because copies of all the applications are put into binders for the nominating commission members to use).
You should answer all of the questions but don’t say more than is necessary. Nominating commission members will want to see that you can make a point succinctly. Proofread your application. One typo is forgivable but 15 are not. Grammatical errors will be noticed.
What other information is compiled once an application is submitted?
Criminal background checks are done, including any juvenile records; a credit report is obtained; a check of prior discipline is made. Currently, there is no scrutiny of postings on social media, and you do not have to give up your Facebook password. There will, however, be internet searches.
Credit reports are important. Because judges have a lot of power, the nominating commission may want to make sure that there is no appearance that an applicant is trying to better his or her financial position. Any credit problems should be addressed well in advance of an application, and serious financial problems may prevent an applicant from being selected. Members of the nominating commission are likely to think that if an applicant is not organized enough to make sure bills are paid on time, this does not speak well of an ability to organize cases and calendars. If you are not paying creditors, then perhaps you don’t have the integrity or standing in the community to be a judge.
What about references? Who should I list and should I contact them myself?
For state court positions, you should not contact references. Ron Gordon’s office will contact some of your references, so you should give a lot of thought to the people you list. Make sure they can speak favorably about you and know you well enough to provide detailed information.
If you list a judge and had only limited contact with her, this will not be helpful. It will not help your application if the judge says that she does not know the applicant.
In addition to the names you provide as references, you may ask people to send letters or make telephone calls in support of your candidacy to Ron Gordon’s office. All letters will be reviewed and often they can be helpful. Letters that help those involved in the selection process become acquainted with you are useful. After names are sent to the Governor’s office, letters may also be sent to support your candidacy. All of these letters stay in your file, and if you are selected by the Governor, they will be reviewed by the Senate.
2. Qualifications and Preparation
How can I prepare myself to be a stronger candidate for a judicial position?
Ideally, at the trial court level, a candidate will have both criminal and civil experience, since each district court judge will have to handle both kinds of cases. Since most lawyers typically do not have both, there are other ways to enhance your qualifications. If your practice is primarily civil, you can attend CLE programs that focus on criminal practice and procedure. You can spend time in the courtroom observing proceedings in areas where your experience is weakest. If you have the reputation of being a hard worker, this will help you if you say you are willing to work to learn areas of the law that you have relatively less experience with.
Keep in mind that district courts are courts of general jurisdiction and regardless of your background before coming a judge, you will handle civil and criminal cases and domestic relations matters. So you need to have a plan for how to acquire the needed expertise.
Shall I even bother to apply if I don’t have experience as a litigator or trial attorney? If I’ve worked in a large law firm and mainly had a motion practice and settled big cases, is it hopeless?
It is generally expected that applicants will have some courtroom experience. But if that is your weak point, there are other things you can do. You should use part of the application to explain what other relevant experience you have. If you can show that you are a hard worker and have shown the initiative to make up for deficiencies in your experience, this will be a plus. You can volunteer for small cases at your firm, so you can become known to sitting judges. You can handle pro brono domestic relations cases and guardian ad litem cases or adoptions. You can volunteer for small claims court work or Legal Aid cases to acquire experience that you lack. Being a court commissioner can be a first step to becoming a district court judge.
If your practice in your firm has primarily been as a second chair in big cases, you might try to get arbitration experience where you have taken the lead. You can also emphasize the decision-making, writing and research skills you have developed in your cases. Try to analyze your experience in terms that match what judges do on the court that you are applying for.
A variety of experiences can be made into a positive thing, especially if you have done well at each of them. You can’t know which relationships may turn out to be helpful and make a difference, so always try to conduct yourself civilly. One current judge said it turned out, in her case, that an opposing counsel was a good friend of the governor and lieutenant governor and his support may have made a difference.
How much experience do I need before applying?
A ballpark number for legal experience is around 10 years of practice. That would be typical, but it is not required. Attorneys with fewer years of experience have been selected for interviews, and this is generally because they have written something so compelling in their application that the commissioners wanted to interview them.
What if there are things in my background that I have concerns about?
You can expect that troubling things in your past will become known, and you should have a plan for dealing with them. You should try to be aware of what people are saying about you. Ron Gordon’s office will do searches on the internet, read articles you have written and check with people who know you. You are likely to be asked if there is anything in your background that might embarrass you, and that is the time to make any disclosures. Everyone has something in their background that they wish were otherwise, and it may come out in letters that are sent or comments that are made. You should think about what is on Facebook and other social media. Although currently the state does not ask for access to your pages, the federal background check will include social media sites.
I have been involved in politics in the past. What should I do if I want to apply for a judicial position? Will this give me an advantage in the selection process?
As soon as you send in your application, you become subject to the Judicial Code of Conduct and must not make political contributions or be involved in political campaigns or activities. If political contributions come from a joint account, it will be attributed to you even if you did not make it. Having political connections is not a requirement for and not a guaranty of selection. Many sitting judges had no political ties when they were selected.
What if I don’t get picked by the nominating commission or the Governor? Shall I try again?
You should be prepared to apply multiple times. Many of the current judges made repeated applications before finally being selected. Some involved in the selection process may consider repeated applications a sign of strong interest and commitment to becoming a judge.
Besides legal experience, what other things about my background will the nominating commission look at and consider?
The nominating commissions like to see public service as part of an applicant’s experience. One of the typical questions that will be asked is why you want to serve in the judiciary and if one of your reasons is a desire to serve, then prior public service makes it more plausible that this is a motivating factor.
Your personal qualities will be considered. If you have a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way, you are not likely to be selected. You should keep a list of contacts before you begin the application process and think about what they might say about you. Common courtesy in your dealings with other attorneys will be a good thing.
3. Interview with the nominating commission
Who sits on the nominating commissions?
Each nominating commission has 8 members, 7 of whom are appointed by the governor. A non-voting member of the Judicial Council also participates. The governor picks some nominating commission members from names submitted by the Utah State Bar and the rest may be public members. There may be no more than 4 lawyers and 4 members from one political party on a commission. The current governor looks for broad experience among commission members, and may select individuals with business experience or experience in education, for example.
What procedures do the nominating commissions follow?
Each member receives a copy of all the applications. At the first meeting of the nominating commission there is a public session followed by a closed session. In the public session, the presiding judge talks about the needs of the particular court. The commission members pay attention to what the presiding judge says the needs of the court are and may select candidates with experience that matches the needs of the court.
Then the meeting is closed, and the commissioners review all of the applications to decide which applicants to interview. They discuss each applicant and narrow the pool down to a manageable number, generally around 10 to 13.
Once the candidates have been interviewed the commissioners vote by secret ballot and select 5 candidates to recommend to the governor (or 7 in the case of an appellate court position).
What about the first interview, before the nominating commission? What should I expect?
Interviews are scheduled for 20 minutes, so you don’t have a lot of time to present your case for why you should be selected. The questions are predictable but there is no set of standard questions. You should be warmed up and ready to describe your experience and qualifications. Thinking about questions and rehearsing possible answers in advance is good preparation.
You should have a story to tell about yourself—especially one that will distinguish you from all the other applicants. Just as in oral argument, you should keep coming back to your basic points and themes. You will be given a chance to make an opening statement of 2 to 3 minutes. Be specific, with details and facts that will give information about you and your qualifications. Do not say things like this: “You’ll never find a better qualified candidate than I am.”
The commissioners may ask about your legal practice and some are likely to be concerned with your demeanor and collegiality. They will want to know what kind of person you are and whether you can handle the stress and hard work of being a judge. They will ask you why you want to be a judge, and a good, thoughtful answer to this question will help to set you apart from other candidates. You might want to talk about the need to have good people serving on the bench and why it is important for you to be there. A personal explanation will be helpful. Sometimes candidates talk about specific experiences with judges—for better or worse—as an explanation of why they want to be a judge. You should have an idea of the kind of judge you want to be.
Should I try to contact commissioners before my interview?
Definitely not. But if there are people who know you and know a commissioner or are willing to contact him or her, a call is permitted although it is not necessary. Be careful in selecting people to help you and be sure they know you well enough to provide useful information.
As a woman, am I going to be disadvantaged in the interview?
No. But be sure to speak confidently about your experience, ability and talent. Don’t downplay your accomplishments (and don’t brag about them either). Believe in yourself.
What if I am picked by the nominating commission but not by the Governor? Will this harm my career?
Some applicants say the mere fact that you have been selected by a nominating commission enhances your professional reputation. It makes you more interesting and many of your colleagues will think it is a compliment to you to have been selected. Another applicant found that her partners were annoyed that she hadn’t told them ahead of time that she was applying. Sometimes partners will be reluctant to hand over responsibility for big cases because they assume you will apply again and will not be available for the long term.
4. Interview with the Governor
What if I am fortunate enough to be selected as one of the five candidates whose names are sent to the Governor? What happens next?
The Governor’s office will typically want two interviews. The first will be with three staff members, Ron Gordon, Jayce Skinner and John Pearce. They know this process is stressful for applicants and try to be sensitive to that. The staff uses this interview to work through any issues with your application and the information that has been obtained about you. There are reasons why they are asking you the specific questions that they have. Although information from the references who are contacted is confidential, public comments can be disclosed.
The second meeting is in the Governor’s office, and the current Governor asks questions and takes notes. He has specific information that he wants to get from each person who is interviewed. The staff and usually the Lieutenant Governor will also be present. You should go to the Governor first and shake his hand and then greet the Lieutenant Governor. Don’t sit down until the Governor is seated.
The Governor’s interview must take place within the prescribed time period, so don’t make plans that will take you away at the relevant time.
What will the Governor ask me and how should I prepare?
Remember that you are explaining to a non-lawyer why you want to be a judge. You need to use different language and really think about what you want to say. The current Governor has specific information that he wants to get and will take notes during the interview. He appreciates candor and thoughtful responses. He will want to know how you relate to the variety of people who will come before a judge. One successful applicant was asked to tell something about herself that was not on her resume or application and her answer was that she had driven a forklift truck at an early job. This can be a useful way to emphasize a diverse background. If there is an area of the law that you have little experience in, you need to be prepared to say how you will deal with that—by hard study, CLE programs or whatever else applies to your situation. The Governor wants to see candidates who are connected to their community by serving on boards and organizations. The assumption is that this will help them relate to the people who appear before the courts. The Governor does not, however, want to know which political party you belong to, since that is not a consideration in making the nomination.
If you are selected the Governor will call you and start the call by saying “This is Gary.” Be prepared. Ron Gordon will deliver the bad news if you are not selected.
5. Senate Confirmation
I’ve heard that candidates can be given a rough time at the Senate when they appear for their confirmation hearings? What can I do to prepare, should I be fortunate enough to be selected?
Senators may have a different perspective on the qualifications a candidate needs to have. Trial court judges may be expected to have courtroom experience. For some senators service to the Bar does not count in the same way as service to the community or other organizations, and you will probably be asked about your service to the community. Senators want to have not only good lawyers but also great people sitting on the bench.
If the Governor selects you, you can expect him to stand behind you and give you his support during the process.
Other State Positions
What about becoming a juvenile court judge? What experience should I have?
Typically, juvenile court judges have experience either in the area of criminal prosecution and delinquency or with child welfare issues or guardian ad litem work. You should like working with children in some capacity to enjoy the work of this court. It is not enough, however, to love children and have coached your daughter’s basketball team or have been active in the PTA to be qualified. You can expect a very large caseload, handling 25 or 30 cases a day. You need to be able to talk to all kinds of kids and their families.
I didn’t get picked for district court after several applications? Should I try to become a juvenile court judge and work my way up?
Probably this is not going to work for you. Judicial positions are not interchangeable, and each court requires a certain kind of background and experience. If you apply for any open judicial position, you may not be seen as sincere about your application.
Justice Courts and ALJ’s
What is the process for Justice Court nominating committees?
In Salt Lake County there are 5 nominating committee members. Three of them are attorneys who serve for four-year terms. When a jurisdiction has a vacancy, it appoints two people to join the committee, often the city attorney and a representative from the mayor or manager’s office. The nominating committee will select 3 to 5 names to go to the city administrator or mayor.
What about references? Will they be contacted?
If you list someone as a reference, they may be called. The number will vary. The state court administrator’s office often supports the work of the committee and may follow up on references as well as obtain credit reports on candidates who are invited for interviews. References will be asked to rate applicants on various criteria. Committee members may also make personal inquiries. Sometimes references give negative feedback about applicants, so you should be careful whom you select as references and let people know if you are listing them.
How can I prepare myself to apply for a Justice Court position?
First of all, be familiar with the court that you are applying for and make sure it is what you want and what you are suited for by way of background and training. The needs of Herriman, for example, may not be the same as West Valley City. Generally Justice Court judges handle a high volume of cases, so prosecutorial or criminal defense work would be helpful. If you don’t have that kind of experience, you might try to find a substitute, such as working at a judge in small claims court, since you will be competing against candidates who do have that experience. Ultimately you should provide the committee with sufficient information to show that you can handle the work of the court and be a good representative of justice for that city.
Am I going to be disadvantaged if I am a woman or a member of a minority group?
This is a good time for women and minorities to apply to serve in the justice courts. Many mayors and city managers are looking for greater diversity on the bench, one that reflects the community and the legal community. But the committee is also looking for assurance that you will be the best choice for a judge to represent the city with the vacancy regardless of gender or ethnicity.
I have always wanted to be a judge but have not been successful in my applications. Any suggestions?
You can consider applying to be an administrative law judge, since that can prove to be interesting and rewarding. The Labor Commission, Human Services Department, Public Service Commission and many federal agencies all have positions that become available from time to time. If you apply for a federal position, keep in mind that you may have to move to a different city.
The nominating and selection process is similar to that for district court judges, but the selection criteria may be somewhat different. Appellate court judges obviously have less interaction with the general public than trial court judges and they spend much of their time writing. Publications may be a plus for this position. If you don’t like research and writing, you may not enjoy the work of the appellate courts.
Federal Magistrate Judges
What is the process for selecting federal magistrate judges?
The federal district court judges select members of a Merit Selection Panel to screen candidates for magistrate positions. The current panel has 9 members, 4 women and 5 men, 2 business people and 7 lawyers. Most recently, 40 applications were received and 10 candidates were interviewed. After the panel makes its selection of 5 candidates, the names are given to the district court judges for a final choice.
I heard that the background checks for federal judicial positions are very thorough—is that true?
Yes, background checks for federal positions cost around $60,000 and will review all aspects of your background. You consent to detailed scrutiny, including postings on social media such as Facebook.
What are the interviews like?
For the sake of uniformity across the applicants, the commission members may use pre- drafted questions. Think about each part of your resume and have a story about each line that will tell the nominating committee something about you. Try to stay positive during the interview. You may be asked why you are better than the other candidates or what you don’t like about judges.
Federal District and Appellate Court Judges
What happens when federal court judges are appointed? It seems like names just come out of nowhere.
To some extent the process is political. The “non-application” process involves contact with Utah’s Senators. You need to indicate an interest and get them a resume and try to talk to the Senators. Contacting Representative Matheson’s office may also be helpful given the current Democratic President. In due course, the Senators will contact the White House, where staffers will look at their recommendations. There will be a vetting process and discussions with those who know potential nominees. The President will make the nomination, which must go through the Judiciary Committee and be approved by the full Senate. There will be a VERY extensive application and background check.
What can I do to enhance my “application”?
Try to find the jobs that you are passionate about, so you will stand out in your area and have the best reputation.