News | Judgment Day: The Legislature plans to fix city justice courts. Sort of 

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Christian Caballero got in a hit-and-run accident in September. He was hit; the other guy ran. Topping off his bad day, police gave Caballero a ticket when he couldn’t find his insurance forms. The officer told him to take his insurance paperwork to the West Valley City Justice Court and the charges would be dropped.

Four months and four court appearance later, Caballero finally left the courthouse in January a free man. His insurance documents had repeatedly been rejected by the court. Finally, he had to ask for a trial and bring his insurance agent to testify. In the end, the no-insurance charge was dropped, but Caballero was dinged with obstruction of justice for allegedly annoying court clerks.

Caballero’s lasting impression was that the fix was in from the start. The justice court was set up only to find people “guilty” and issue fines. “I walked into West Valley an innocent man and walked out a criminal,” he says.

The impression that justice courts—run by counties and cities to handle traffic and misdemeanor cases—exist mainly to raise money for local government is widespread. So widespread, in fact, that the Utah Supreme Court asked Utah’s Legislature this year to revamp justice court rules.

The court’s proposal would have placed justice courts under the umbrella of the Judicial Council, which sets policy for courts in Utah. Justice court judges would be selected by committees, not city mayors. They would represent judicial districts instead of cities or counties, and be assigned to new regional courts. Judges would be full-time, be required to have a college degree and would receive fixed salaries through the state.

A report issued this January by Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham said something had to be done. According to the report, the problem is that cities and counties, unlike the state, don’t have an independent judicial branch of government. The report states: “Although many cities and counties have implemented measures to insulate their justice courts from the influence of mayors, councils and commissioners, real separation of power is largely illusory.”

Mike Martinez has been saying the same thing for years. The Murray attorney waged a legal war against justice courts four years ago, arguing the courts were unconstitutional. The Utah Supreme Court said Martinez didn’t prove his case but, shortly after, began working on the justice court reform plan presented to the Legislature this year.

After years of study, a justice court reform bill has passed out of legislative committee. The office of the state administrator of the courts, as well as representatives of city and county governments, say the problems have been fixed. Citizens can rest assured they won’t get steamrolled by justice courts in the future.

Martinez says don’t believe it.

The justice-court reform that passed committee was the result of negotiations between the office of the state court administrator, the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties. Martinez says the cities won and the reform proposed by Utah Supreme Court justices has been gutted.

The agreed-upon version leaves in requirements to improve judge quality, like requiring a college degree. It also creates a pay scale, performance evaluations and a requirement that judges stand for election every six years.

But gone are most provisions that would have set a wall between local governments and judges. In the current version, mayors will still appoint judges. Thrown out is the idea of state-paid judges assigned to work by state court officials at district-wide courthouses. Also gone is a proposal for local citizens to sit on judge-nominating commissions.

“The substitute bill takes out the heart of the whole change—who controls the judge,” complains Martinez.

Rick Schwermer, assistant court administrator for Utah, acknowledges the courts didn’t get everything they wanted, but he is comfortable with the compromise bill. Court administrators insisted on retention elections, uniform pay scales and educational requirements, he said. The bill “should provide assurances these judges have the freedom to make independent decisions.”

Roger Tew, who represented the League of Cities and Towns in negotiations, says he’s tired of hearing the justice court debate boiled down to a struggle for control of court fines—an estimated $84 million this year. “I’m not trying to say there aren’t some cities that aren’t making money. I’m not saying that for some cities, that wasn’t their initial motivation. I’m saying, let’s be honest. To the extent that the court system generates more money than it costs, it generates money for the state court system as well.”

The real issue that needed fixing was the perception that judges weren’t independent from cities, Tew said. The bill fixes that by limiting the ability of mayors to play with judges’ salaries and making judges accountable to the public.

Tew said the League of Cities and Towns’ biggest objection was the proposal for justice court judges to become state employees. “Our point was, does the state want to take over the whole thing?” Tew says. He says the idea of folding justice courts in with the rest of Utah’s state court system “has some real merit” but notes that the proposal was never on the table.

Martinez says such a state takeover is the only solution. As he wrote in his brief to the Utah Supreme Court four years ago—and as state court administrators said before the legislative session—the idea that justice courts are independent from local politicians is “illusory.”

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