Counties Want to Hire, Fire Court Judges

Counties Want to Hire, Fire Court Judges

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Proposed legislation would eliminate retention elections for county justice court judges, leaving the power to hire and fire the judges in the hands of their county commissions.

The bill is supported by the Utah Association of Counties and opposed by the state Judicial Council.

It is sponsored by Sen. Thomas Hatch, R-Panguitch, who said it is intended to hold judges more accountable for their actions off the bench.

"This is not intended to reprimand or intimidate justice court judges," Hatch said. "There have just been times when justice court judge conduct, other than the decisions that they have made, has been less than suitable, and there is no recourse."

Utah Association of Counties Associate Director Mark Walsh said counties need to be able to hold judges responsible for the way they spend public money, citing problems with "two or three judges that have shown us the deficiency in the statute.

"Some judges think they are independent of the county in terms of personnel and procurement policies and it's caused some problems," he said.

The Utah Judicial Council, which sets policy for state courts, opposes Hatch's bill.

The state judges argue the move would strip county judges of their independence. The courts urge legislators not to turn Utah's clock back to a time when "local political officials exercised controlling authority and could influence these courts in a manner inconsistent with the neutral administration of justice."

Nearly 70 percent of all cases filed in the state go before justice court judges, and while justice court cases are generally minor, "the credibility of the entire judiciary is at stake in these courts," the statement said.

Justice court judges are hired by county commissioners or cities and are not required to be lawyers.

They handle class B and C misdemeanors, ordinance violations, small claims cases and infractions, such as traffic tickets. County judges stand for retention election every four years, where they are unopposed and voters are asked only if they should remain on the bench.

Davis County Justice Court Judge Jerald L. Jensen, who represents his colleagues on the Judicial Council, said bill further the stereotype that the local courts are only interested in money.

Municipal judges do not stand for retention election, and are instead reappointed by city officials for four-year terms.

Jensen said there have been cases of city leaders trying to direct municipal judges on what to do with speeding tickets or instructing judges not to allow jury trials because they do not fit in the budget.

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine M. Durham, who heads the Judicial Council, said great efforts have been made for more than a decade to bring justice court judges under the umbrella of the state system, with uniform standards, judicial oversight and an eye toward preventing "possible influence on decision-making that can come from having the people who pay you decide if you can keep your job or not."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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