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Box Elder County's Broken Court

The fast and loose rulings of a Box Elder County Justice Court Judge are symptomatic of a broken system, advocates say.

By Eric S. Peterson
Posted // March 31,2010 -

On Sept. 9, 2009, Box Elder County Justice Court Judge Kevin Christensen heard an outlandish request from a woman facing jail time: She wanted court-appointed counsel. Christensen asked the defendant where she got such a foolish notion that she would need a lawyer. When the woman told Christensen her friend, who was present in court and had helped her file the motion, recommended she apply for one, Christensen admonished the defendant’s friend by telling her to “knock it off.” The judge subsequently denied the motion for court-appointed counsel, arguing that if the woman could pay the filing fee for the paperwork requesting a public defender because of her indigence, then she could afford her own attorney.

Court observers from the University of Utah’s Civil Rights Clinic were monitoring the proceedings because of complaints about Christensen’s courtroom antics, which they say included denying defendants their constitutional rights to an attorney and regularly ordering defendants to resolve their cases with the county prosecutor before they entered any plea. Brigham City defense attorney Charles Schultz is also concerned, saying bad blood between him and Christensen has prompted the judge to tell defendants they would receive the maximum penalty and fine for even associating with Schultz.

The actions of a rural judge (neither Judge Christensen nor a representative of the Box Elder County Justice Court would return comment for this story) are representative of statewide failings in the legal system, says advocate Emily Chiang, director of the University of Utah’s Civil Rights Clinic.

“These are symptoms of a larger problem,” Chiang says, “and you will expect to find problems like this when the state has abdicated its responsibility to provide any [criminal defense] support on the county level.”

For residents of Brigham City and other Box Elder communities, it’s easy to stick out in a small town where everybody knows everybody. Just ask Schultz, who has found himself in Christensen’s crosshairs since 2002, when Schultz beat back an arrest warrant issued by Christensen for one of his clients’ failure to appear in court. Schultz’s client was due in small claims—not criminal—court over a disagreement stemming from the purchase of a sick horse. Schultz successfully argued that he couldn’t be arrested for not appearing since the case was in small-claims court. He also argued that such a warrant needed to be delivered by a process server and couldn’t just be mailed to his client.

“He got very upset because I was telling him what the law was,” Schultz says.

Schultz says relations with the judge continued to sour for him and his clients. One of his clients, Robert Pett, was charged in 2008 with nuisance charges relating to several dogs and chickens allegedly on his property. While the charges were dismissed—Pett neither owned the dogs, chickens or the property where the nuisance was said to happen—when he told Christensen he was being represented by Schultz, Pett says Christensen went off on a tirade about Schultz and immediately imposed a $165 bail on Pett.

“He considered me a flight risk,” Pett says. “At the time, I was 71 and living on disability and Social Security,” he says, adding that he’s lived at the same Box Elder County residence since 1961. Consistent with the observations recorded by volunteers from Chiang’s clinic, Pett says in that case, Christensen refused to allow Pett to enter a not-guilty plea until he spoke with the county prosecutor about resolving the charges.

While Schultz and multiple clients of Schultz’s have had to move for Christensen’s disqualification in their cases, perhaps the most telling is the current motion Schultz recently submitted. Schultz had to move for Christensen to be removed from a case where Schultz himself is a co-defendant.

In late 2009, Schultz was defending Pett for a littering citation, when Christensen’s court refused to allow Schultz as counsel, citing him as a co-defendant, and therefore unable to represent Pett. The charge originally alleged Pett had dumped cat litter on the property of his neighbor. Since Pett rents a basement apartment to Schultz, Schultz believes that is why he was added as a co-defendant to the charge.

Schultz, in turn, hired Salt Lake City attorney Ed Flint to file for Christensen’s disqualification. In a motion for disqualification, Flint writes that when he appeared before Christensen in October 2009, he was told there was no “feud” between the Christensen and the client, Schultz, and that the judge was certainly “not out to get him.” Flint ultimately filed a motion, citing a letter that the judge wrote to Sheri Pett, sister to Robert Pett, denying her request for disqualification for another incident.

In the Jan. 25, 2010, letter, Christensen chastises Pett for not capitalizing his name in the motion and also accuses her of having Schultz write the letter: “I have patiently endured Mr. Schultz’s petty disrespect for years, but that will no longer be the case from this point on.” The case against Schultz and Robert Pett is still pending, while another judge decides whether Christensen should recuse himself.

While the motions are still in play, Schultz openly admits he doesn’t have much regard for Christensen’s court.

“To use the term ‘justice’ for these courts is a joke,” Schultz says. “These are revenue courts.” As for Christensen, Schultz sees an authority who throughout his career “routinely fails to advise [defendants] of their rights. It’s a complete power trip for him.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, in conjunction with the University of Utah Civil Rights Clinic, submitted an official letter of complaint to Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham on Feb. 18, 2010. It says that in three visits to the court they witnessed Christensen’s routine denial of basic rights to defendants, and also “Christensen’s failure to behave in a dignified and courteous manner to all litigants, in violation of the Judicial Code of Conduct.”

While Chiang sees Christensen’s behavior as “unprofessional at best and unconstitutional at worst,” ultimately she doesn’t fault Christensen.

“I don’t think it’s this particular judge’s fault,” Chiang says. “He may not realize the Constitution requires counsel be afforded when defendants face jail time.” Without state rules requiring law degrees for justice court judges, Chiang doesn’t doubt Christensen may not have legal experience comparable to other judges.

State rules require justice court judges complete 30 hours of legal training annually to remain certified. As a county justice court judge, Christensen is up for retention election this year with the Box Elder County Comission.

What concerns Chiang is that Utah provides no state support for public defense, relegating that instead to each individual county. Utah also hits the bottom of the barrel for public money spent on public defense, ranking 48th in the nation (pdf) for per capita spending on indigent defendants. Without state support, it’s no wonder public defenders may be in short supply in Christensen’s court and don’t have the presence to advocate with the same strength as judges and prosecutors.

“I suspect what’s happening is not unusual,” Chiang says. “I don’t think it’s this one rogue judge making ill-advised pronouncements in his courtroom. I think this is representative of a system broken, as a whole.”

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Posted // March 27,2012 at 23:54 This Guy Needs to be taken off the Bench!He thinks Hes God!!You Utahans arent smart enough to get rid of this JERK!!!! vote his ASS-OUT!!!!!! We have heard of this parasite all the way in Idaho!!Time For him to realize who pays his salary!!!!!!


Posted // June 15,2011 at 22:23

You libs!!! You are not entitled to anything for free in this world!!! Someone else is paying for it. There is no mother Teresa handing out money! I don't think the tax payer should pay for your layer!!! Secondly!!! No his kid was not killed by a drunk driver just to let you know. I get sick of hearing that dumb rumer. No he wasn't pulled over for drunk driving that is another stupid rumor. He wasn't caught with a prostitute in nevada! Just because you don't want to own responcibility for your own actions, its some body else's fault. Here is a novel idea. If you don't like the guy don't break the law. Its really that simple folks!!! You people really need to quit wining and grow up!!! Its no one elses fault you do drugs. Its nobody elses fault you got caught drinking and driving exept your own!!! I have been in front of this man on a few occasions when I was younger. I never got treated unfairly. I have never seen the crap that people claim when I was there. Seriously if you want to remove him don't break the law!!! Then we wouldn't need him anymore!!! Brady X


Posted // September 24,2010 at 14:35

I was in his court this week, I couldn't understand because he talked fast, and I have a problem processing things sometimes from a previous brain aneurism, anyways, as I was 10 min. late, I didn't know I could have an attorney, so when he asked me if I wanted one I said I don't think so, knowing i was guilty, as I started to talk with him he kept bringing up attorney, and I said I would pay the ticket I had lied to a field officer when someone totaled my car knowing I was driving on revoked license from not having insurance and not taking care of it, well all I know is that I already had been placed in jail for that the week before paid bail and had forgotten I also had a ticket in midvale where I am from, so suddenly he started asking me if I had cleared up the thing with my drivers license and I said yea, he didn't had proof that I had been in wvcity court the day before so I showed him the paperwork, then he asked me like I was 16 how I got up to brigham city and I told him my daughter in law brought me and she is cleaning out the totaled car from the other driver who hit me in my daughters car the week before, suddenly he turned mean and said he had seen a warrant issued on the same type ticket from 2 days before in midvale, so I was arrested again, I still don't know how much I am to pay on the ticket there, I started balling really loudly, I am 58, not well, never arrested don't drnk and drive, just by circumstances and not having my car insurance got me into trouble, and the officer put the cuffs on as tight as he could, I am not kidding, I knew something was wrong, I didn't know what my next step was, all he had to say is step away and go talk to one of the attornies here, as I didn't know anyone could help me through the thing. He continued to carry on business with me balling rather loudly, unbelieveable, he didn't have to be like that, when I finally had asserted myself and told him to slow down because of my brain aneurism he turned mean, he never asked if I got hurt when I was hit from behind, on the car thing a week or so before, I wished I hadn't taken my daughters car that day. I hate that judge, and I will be drafting as many letters to as many powers that be.


Posted // January 18,2011 at 22:36 - I'm sorry the judge was like that to you, I don't understand it as I am always for the underdog. Somethings argue about this judge is bogus. I do not believe he has ever had a dui. I am so against people who drink and drive, but would never deny their constitutional right for an attorney. I don't know why he does the things he does, but you are definetly guilty when you come before him. I think the whole system here in Brigham is a scam. My son was told to plead guilty to something he had three witnesses in his defense. His attorney and the prosecutor told him this. Now it continues to haunt him. The whole thing is unreal. I don't know if Kevin really knows the extent of how he messes up peoples lives or not. I hope not! The whole thing makes me sad. God forgive him, cause he's got alot of karma coming his way!!


Posted // September 21,2010 at 19:35

I totally agree with everthing in this article. I have had dealings with him in the past and i will tell you it was not pretty. Well good luck to everyone and god bless you.



Posted // April 19,2011 at 08:15 - Dealing with Judges, Mayors Cops and City Councils, I have learned these people do not deserve my respect. I live in Willard, We are getting a sewer we did not vote for and are being threatened with a Mistimenor if we refuse to connect. We are under attack by those that are elected to serve the people.


Posted // April 19,2010 at 01:43

Judge Christensen is a tyrant and is rumored to have been pulled over drunk driving on more than several occasions, often with underage girls.


Posted // May 11,2010 at 09:04 - I have been in Christensen's court many times, and have always known him to be fair and honest - Also, rumors are just that...rumors - and these are ridiculous!


Posted // April 23,2010 at 14:28 - In order to remove Judge Kevin Christensen, we need to stick to facts, not rumors go with the experences people have endored with Christensen. My son has had to face him as well, he had my son give a UA no one ealse was aksed to give a UA, but every one got 30 days in jail. Nobody went home this day. And my son stated that he was close to getting hired on perm through a temp agency and that he is trying to put the past behind him and move foward. Yes, Kevin Christensen should be removed from the bench, because as long has we continue to let Judges like this continue serving the public, people may never have a chance to change no matter how hard they try. Judge Christensen should not only lose his job but all that he has worked for so he can get a taste of what he has put people through by loseing there jobs and becomming homeless because os his actions he is a unfare Judge whom needs to step down. Oh and lets not forget he needs to get counseling as well. And as for you Elizabeth Turner don't be suprised of what comes up on Keven Christensen, in the way he has handled his court ruleings he should do some jail time as well just like everyone he has put in jail with fines and lets not forget about your commsioner he should be looked into as well because he runs his court the same way Christensen dose, he don't like to hear the truth. I have all ways wanted to know is how is it to be a racest bastered, the year is 2010 not 1940's 1950'S 1960's and we have a Black Presadent now, which I voted for. It's time for a change and together we can say YES WE CAN. let nobody tear us down.


Posted // April 20,2010 at 21:59 - Prove it. That is the most ridiculous, unfounded rumor and I think you are seriously bordering on libel for remarks such as that.