The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill out favorably to allow municipalities’ greater control over the votes of their Justice Court judges.
Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork presented the House Judiciary Committee today with a bill that would allow municipalities greater control over the retention election of their Justice Court Judges, in a bill proposal that walks a fine line between voter control of local government and judicial independence. Sumsion’s bill would allow municipalities of cities with populations of 30,000 or more people the sole ability to vote for the retention of their city’s justice court judge. Currently the entire county in which a municipal judge serves gets to vote on their retention.
It was apparent during the public comment to Sumsion's HB 74, that one city in particular, Saratoga Springs, felt their control over the retention of Justice Court Judge Keith Stoney was foiled by other cities in the county not understanding the issue. Edward Peltekian accompanied a litany of public commenters who claim Stoney was retained as judge only because Utah County voters did not understand the nature of his courtroom.
“This man who is our judge in Saratoga Springs literally throws people in jail for no reason,” Peltekian told the committee. Peltekian’s turbulent encounters with Judge Stoney were covered in a Sept. 2, 2010 article “Dog Day in Court” that reported on Stoney jailing Peltekian’s wife for 24 hours for contempt of court for allegedly recording court proceedings, even though the court did not prohibit any such action.
Peltekian and a contingent of irate citizens formed a “No on Stoney” campaign for the 2010 election that organized rallies and protests against Stoney’s court. Despite their efforts however Stoney was reelected by 75 percent of the county vote. Peltekian argued that his vote against Stoney was “nullified” by the votes of other county residents. “This was taxation without representation,” Peltekian told the committee. “We are paying for this judge through our taxes, no one else pays for this judge.”
While the Saratoga Springs residents in attendance were in favor of the bill, Sumsion acknowledged that currently it would not affect Saratoga Springs since the city does not meet the population requirement to directly vote on their judge, as his proposal would allow. He did point out however that with Saratoga Springs population growth they would certainly qualify within a few years time.
Rep. Lavar Christensen, R-Draper liked the thrust of Sumsion’s bill but tried to expand the scope of it by also applying it to cities with populations of 10,000 or more people. The amendment failed to pass, though Christensen indicated that he would like to see it considered before the bill comes to the house floor. Rick Schwermer, the administrator over justice courts for the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts pointed out in a separate interview that local control can go too far if it encroaches upon “judicial independence” a scenario that becomes more likely depending on how small the city is that might have a direct vote on its judge.
“It gets dangerous when the Judge’s feeling that he has to stick his finger in the air to see what voters want, gets stronger than his duty to uphold the law,” Schwermer says.