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Scott G. Winterton, KSL

Mental illness an 'enormous challenge' to Utah courts, chief justice says

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Jan. 27, 2020 at 10:14 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant began his remarks to both the Utah House and Senate on Monday describing how a line in his great-grandfather’s obituary pulled no punches.

Durrant said his great-grandfather, William Durrant, was a “quiet man” who was “likely an alcoholic” and was “not a churchgoer,” but would always make a point of helping neighborhood school children cross the muddy road in his neighborhood whenever it rained so they wouldn’t dirty their Sunday best shoes.

His obituary, Durrant said, stated William Durrant “was prominent in neither the church nor the community.”

Representatives and senators, who convened together on the House floor on Monday to listen to Durrant’s State of the Judiciary address, broke out in laughter, as did Durrant, when he recalled that line in the obituary — but Durrant used that line to drive home a point.

“You know what, he was prominent to me,” Durrant said. “He was prominent to those kids.” He was prominent to (his wife) Eliza.”

Durrant said, as he praised the Utah court system, that it’s important to remember “everybody is prominent to somebody.”

“Every person matters,” Durrant said.

The chief justice then spoke of how he’s moved every time he attends a drug court graduation, where people who have worked hard to overcome addictions celebrate their achievements and thank their friends, family and judges who helped them turn their lives around. He spoke of how those who attend come from all walks of life — some young, some old, some dressed up, others wearing jeans and T-shirts. But they all share one thing in common.

“They know what it’s like to love an addict,” Durrant said. “They know what an emotional roller coaster that is. They know what it’s like to have their hopes rise at the slightest sign of progress, only to have them dashed by relapse.”

Durrant stressed the importance of drug treatment, and the role the court system and judges have come to play in helping Utah’s most vulnerable, including the drug addicted and the mentally ill.

Jails and prisons have become the U.S.’s “de facto mental institutions,” Durrant said, containing more people experiencing mental illness than Utah’s state-funded mental hospital.

“That’s an enormous challenge to the court system and for everyone in our communities,” Durrant said.

Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Thomas R. Lee, Justice Constandinos Himonas, Justice John A. Pearce, and Justice Paige Petersen listen as Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant delivers the 2020 State of the Judiciary address to a joint meeting of the Utah House and Senate at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (Photo: Scott G. Winterton, KSL)

So to help address those challenges, Durrant proposed that the court system serve as a convener of all stakeholders to better coordinate efforts and “identify gaps” where those needs of people suffering from mental illness aren’t being met.

“I have very high hopes for this initiative,” Durrant said.

However, Durrant also identified what he also called a “crisis” for Utahns, saying there’s an “enormous gap” between those who need legal help and those who can pay for it.

“People simply can’t afford a lawyer,” he said, stressing the importance of access — an effort Utah’s courts have undertaken as they implement an online court assistance program.

Overall, Durrant had high praise for the Utah court system, applauding judges for their service and thanking the Utah Legislature for its support.

“The state of the judiciary is strong,” Durrant said. “I never been more thrilled with our leadership.”

One lawmaker, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, has filed a resolution to amend the Utah Constitution to change the selection of judges — which is currently by a government appointment, subject to Senate approval, then subject to a public vote for retention — to a nonpartisan election. But Durrant lauded the current system, calling it “highly rigorous” and saying it ensures judges are selected based on “merit.”

Durrant concluded his speech by laying out the judiciary’s ask this year for additional funding, including $1.2 million in ongoing funds and $450,000 in one-time funds, for technology upgrades, including repair of the court house’s failing sound system and to hire new IT professionals to address a massive administrative backlog.

As Utah grows, so does demand on its court system, Durrant said. The additional funds will ensure the regular citizen has access to court resources and allow for competitive wages so court employees aren’t lost to better-paying jobs.

“Yes, I am proud, and yes, the state of the judiciary is strong,” Durrant said. “But we hope to get even better.”

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