Monday, April 12, 2010

Justice Court Judge Called out by ACLU

Posted By on April 12, 2010, 11:21 AM

City Weekly recently covered the antics of Box Elder County Justice Court Judge Kevin Christensen for discouraging defendants from applying for court-appointed counsel due to their indigence. ---It seems Christensen is at it again after berating an indigent woman in court for not applying to Subway to gain employment.

On Feb. 18, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah in conjunction with the University of Utah’s Civil Rights clinic penned a letter of complaint against Christensen’s court citing three separate instances where observers saw him act unprofessionally and, more seriously, deny or impede defendants’ right to court appointed counsel if they could not afford it.

According to a new letter posted by the ACLU, Darcy Goddard the ACLU’s legal director visited the courtroom of Christensen on March 11 to find Christensen repeating this pattern.

In one encounter, Goddard describes how a 41-year-old woman was made to fill out the application while the court waited and then had Christensen grill the defendants on the year she had been unemployed.

“You spent substantial time in open court chastising her in a raised voice with comments such as: ‘The Subway right by there is hiring, why haven’t you applied there?’; ‘The Burger King marquee says they’re hiring all positions, so why haven’t you applied there?’” Goddard writes in the letter.“Although the defendant tried to explain throughout that she had been looking for work, you did not stop to listen or ask her what steps she had taken to secure employment.

“It is difficult to convey in words how humiliating it was to her and to those watching, and how inappropriate both your words and demeanor were.”

Neither Christensen, nor a representative of the Box Elder County Justice Court returned comment for City Weekly at the time of this posting.

Besides impeding defendants’ right to counsel, Goddard witnessed constitutionally inadequate plea colloquies: in layman’s terms, inadequate descriptions of rights waived when an individual offers their plea to a charge before the court.

Goddard writes a fair plea colloquy includes informing an individual that if they plead guilty they lose the right to trial, that the burden of proof is on the state, the severity of the sentence they could face, whether or not the defendant knows the time limits for withdrawing a plea, and knowing that the right to appeal is limited.

In her visit Goddard described watching Christensen take six guilty pleas from clients both represented and unrepresented and “In each case your plea colloquy, such as it was, consisted of exactly one statement, i.e., ‘Do you know that by pleading guilty you give up your right to a trial?,’ followed by ‘Guilty or Not Guilty?’”

Representatives of Box Elder County Justice Court would not return comment for this post, but Box Elder County Commissioner Jay Hardy says this may simply be an issue of sour grapes for many.

“This Justice Court handles more cases than any in the state,” Hardy says. “That being said: Do you think every time you sentence somebody you make a friend? You have a lot of disgruntled people you deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Hardy also noted for the record that Christensen has adequate legal experience and was a practicing attorney before serving as a judge. As for claims of cutting corners on due process for defendants in the court room, Hardy referred those comments to the Box Elder County Attorney, who has not returned comment to City Weekly.

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