Impact Of Citizens For Better Judges

 In the thirty-one years of its existence, Citizens for Better Judges has conducted hundreds of judicial candidate interviews and invested thousands of hours in accomplishing its organizational purpose, namely to improve the judiciary by educating the voting public as to the best and most qualified candidates for judicial office. By all accounts, and by most any measure, it has been successful. While the traditional lack of interest in judicial elections reflected by low voter turnout may continue, there can be little doubt that Citizens for Better Judges has made a real difference. When the organization began its efforts, it was said that Jefferson Countians were in the habit of “electing whole families to the bench,” such was the power of incumbency and name recognition in judicial races. Several subsequent elections in which CBJ made

4D6B823F-A721-4818-9A49-851EFC96FA72.jpeg

endorsements contrary to this sort of modern-day Whiggery of inherited judicial seats indicate some break in this pattern due to CBJ’s work. Indeed, The Courier-Journal has referred to Citizens for Better Judges as “the major and most influential civic group interested in judicial elections,” and commended the organization for earning a reputation “for careful screening of candidates before making endorsments.”

Another measure of success is the viewpoint of the candidates. With rare exceptions, the candidates have actively sought support from CBJ and virtually all of them have repeatedly stressed the importance of the CBJ endorsement to their respective campaigns. In one early judicial race which had a field of 22 candidates, the CBJ endorsed candidate was a well-qualified but relatively unknown attorney given little chance of being elected in his first judicial race. To the surprise of all the political prognosticators, he finished third in the primary, only 300 votes shy of going on to the general election. In a letter written following the election, the endorsed candidate attributed his strong showing almost entirely to the CBJ endorsement. He subsequently sought election to another judicial seat, again with CBJ’s endorsement, and was elected by a substantial majority.

Perhaps most telling of the impact that Citizens for Better Judges has made on the judiciary is the current membership of several retired judges in the organization and at least one member who later went on to seek and win election to the bench. Their participation is direct evidence of the credibility of the organization and its acceptance as a valid means of determining judicial qualifications and competence. However, in the final analysis, the best evidence of CBJ’s success is in the overall improvement in the quality of the judiciary presiding in the courts of Jefferson County today as opposed to three decades ago. A high percentage of those who are now on the bench were 

assisted by the endorsement of Citizens for Better Judges. There is little disagreement among both critics and supporters of CBJ in Jefferson County that the public is being served by a more competent, conscientious and professional judiciary than ever before. In that sense, even if Citizens for Better Judges is considered only one of many factors in this development, it has achieved its goal and proven to be a successful method for improving judicial selection in Kentucky.

[Note: The above is an adaptation of an article authored by Mr. Goyette for publication in the 1991-92 edition of The Kentucky Journal
(Kentucky Center for Public Issues)]