A survey can be a dangerous thing. But in the case of the Memphis Bar Association survey on local judges, it is a good thing and a useful piece of information for citizens to have about a class of public officials who deserve more scrutiny than they usually get.
At a time when anything from public schools and private colleges to hamburgers and television shows to political candidates and tax programs can be boosted or broken by a survey, the measuring tool itself needs to be looked at carefully. A few basic questions: Who is doing the survey, is it reasonably objective, and does it add useful information to public discussion?
The Memphis Bar Association includes some 2,900 members, one-fourth of whom took part in the survey. Political polls and "scientific" surveys are often done with smaller samples. Yes, there was the possibility of ballot-stuffing in the bar association poll, but we think lawyers are at least as conscientious in their remarks about judges as, say, people who agree to take part in a telephone poll of political opinions or television viewing habits while they're trying to fix dinner.
The survey itself is a pretty painstaking thing. Each judge is rated on 10 specific criteria and an overall assessment. The questions are about things that should concern the average person as well as the average lawyer -- punctuality, temperament, impartiality, efficiency, and open-mindedness.
The charge that this is no more than a popularity contest doesn't stick. For example, one of the least popular judges in recent local history was U.S. District Judge Robert McRae, who authored the school busing decisions. An opinion poll taken in 1973 might well have found 80 percent or more of Memphians opposed to him or in favor of removing him.
But there is no place for that sort of political opinion to easily find its way into the bar association survey. The questions have nothing to do with the substance of particular cases.
In the news business we're almost always going to be on the side of more disclosure, and this is no exception. Federal judges are appointed for life by politicians. If a judge has failings of temperament, intellect, or bad habits -- or develops them after serving for several years -- the public needs to know it. Only a tiny percentage of the electorate has first-hand experience with the federal courts.
Internally generated reports by the courts are too often overloaded with statistics and wind up on the filing shelf. The ratings of more than 300 lawyers gives both the public and the judges themselves useful feedback, even if some lawyers do use the opportunity to vent their spleen.
When it comes to elected judges, the survey is long overdue. As with most surveys, the extremes are the most telling. The judges with "unsatisfactory" ratings, like the 26 Memphis public schools with "failing" ratings, can gripe all they want, but there are, for the most part, solid reasons for those ratings. If the declining percentage of voters who take part in judicial elections takes note, so much the better.
If a judge is lazy, chronically absent, a tyrant, or an idiot, the public needs to know it. No system is perfect, but the Memphis Bar Association survey is a big improvement on the scanty information about judges that we currently have.