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News Blog

Bills seek recording of Utah Justice Courts

by Eric S. Peterson
- Posted // 2011-02-28 -

wo bills this session would require justice court proceedings to be recorded in order to be certified. A welcome reform to individuals who have claimed some courts have run rough shod over their civil liberties.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, and Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo are running near identical bills this session to require digital audio recordings of justice court proceedings in order for the courts to be certified. Both bills--Senate Bill 318 and House Bill 494 would require the records to be maintained by the courts for at least three years.

As part of its ongoing coverage, City Weekly has been reporting since late 2009 on complaints of the judicial conduct of Justice Court judges from defendants, lawyers and other witnesses. Often City Weekly reporters have witnessed bizarre and unprofessional conduct firsthand in Utah justice courts from Saratoga Springs to Brigham City.

Here is a sample of some of the judges and their courts that we’ve followed.

Michael Kwan—the Taylorsville judge was profiled in a March 24, 2010 article where Kwan’s drug court was examined for its effectiveness. One individual profiled Jessica Deuel entered the court for a minor in possession of alcohol and tobacco ticket only to enter a treatment community where other offenders introduced to harder drugs. Struggling to keep up with the service payments Kwan suggested she sell her plasma to pay her bills. Something she says led her to physical seizures. She also says the intense pressure of the drug court and its financial pressures led to a suicide attempt.

Keith Stoney—A judge for Saratoga Springs and West Valley City was recently featured in an article where he had a woman in court thrown in jail for having her cell phone out. Ironically the woman was there in the Saratoga Springs Justice Court for her son’s hearing on a loose dog charge. The family had felt that the city was going after them. The woman, Elaine Damron, says she was recording at one point until a bailiff told her to stop. Later she had her phone out when the bailiff informed Stoney of this and he subsequently threw her in jail. In a small proceeding for Damron, Stoney told her rules outside strictly forbid recording in the court. A reporter present at the hearing noted however that there was no such restriction posted outside the court.

Kevin Christensen—Box Elder County’s Justice Court Judge, has been featured in several articles in City Weekly. In a May cover story he was reported grilling an indigent woman on why she couldn’t afford her own attorney until she broke down and told the judge that she was a widow and she was getting church assistance and selling her belongings to survive. This incident occurred shortly after Christensen was berated by the ACLU of Utah for discouraging defendants from seeking public defenders. In one instance Christensen taunted a woman to see why she hadn’t applied at the local Subway, cutting her off and not allowing her the opportunity to speak, according to ACLU Legal Director Darcy Goddard, who witnessed the exchange herself.

Another exchange, witnessed by observers from the University of Utah’s Civil Rights Clinic, involved Christensen denying a woman court-appointed counsel based on the fact that if she could afford to pay the filing fee to request a public defender that she could afford her own attorney. In that same exchange Christensen asked where she got the idea that she needed a public defender. When the woman said it was her friend’s suggestion, Christensen told the woman’s friend to “knock it off.”

Jerald Jensen—The Davis County Justice Court Judge was featured in a May cover story where he explained how he was the first Justice Court in the state to try a pilot program to record proceedings in the court. Jensen was also witnessed making very brusque statements to defendants in his court room. One woman in his court trying to explain her situation was threatened with jail time if he interrupted him.

Ronald Kunz—This West Jordan Justice Court Judge was featured in an article that looked at the complaint of a former court clerk who says Kunz coddled her sister’s convicted abuser and allowed him easy passage through a treatment program with close ties to Kunz’ court. Despite the fact that the abuser even picked up a heroin possession charge while in treatment, he still graduated from the treatment.

Colin Winchester, Director of the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission says his office is not taking any position the bills, but personally believes investigating judicial conduct complaints would be much easier if justice courts were recorded. Below is a letter he drafted in support of Jensen’s request for grant money from the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts to create the pilot recording program for his court.

Recording Utah Justice Courts
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