Nickled & Dimed by Utah's Justice Courts | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Nickled & Dimed by Utah's Justice Courts 

Utah’s Justice Courts exact their pound of flesh.

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The Mill
In the Davis County Justice Court, just as any justice court, Jensen’s court is filled with people who screwed up, most of them not denying it. One unique rule Davis County applies, however, is that when defendants are required to pay fines in installments, they’re required to pay by a set schedule each month and come into court if there are any problems.

With Jensen’s court docket often filled, Jensen is unsympathetic with those who waste his time. Robin Walker, however, didn’t think she’d be wasting his time when she went to court on March 13 to give the court advance notice of her inability to pay her next week’s $200 payment toward a $1,600 fine she received for falling asleep at the wheel of her car.

Out of work, facing eviction that weekend, and with a coming week full of court-ordered treatment, Walker wanted to request an extension. Jensen excoriated her for not following the order.

“I’m sorry I came in a week early,” Walker says.

“Can you just listen?” Jensen barked. “I didn’t ask for a response. Obviously we’ve been over that three times.” A pause hangs over the courtroom before Jensen asks: “Correct?”

“You are correct. I am wrong,” Walker says, her voice trembling.

“You certainly are,” Jensen shoots back. “Even after you were given a written order and a verbal order, of course, you’re not concerned about the 50 people here.”

At this point, Walker, with tears on her face, turns to the court to apologize before being cut off by Jensen.

“You interrupt me one more time and you are going to jail today!” he bellows. During the rest of the proceeding, Walker’s voice is barely a whisper as Jensen chastises her for not trying to take the week to find a job.

In a follow-up interview, Jensen doesn’t recall the specific case, though he doesn’t object to the way his orders are scheduled and cites the specific requests of the order as being generous to the defendants, who get the opportunity to explain failure to make a payment—if they come in when they’re supposed to.

“I expect someone to comply,” Jensen says. “If someone comes in ahead of schedule, there’s no doubt in my mind that I may have taken exception to that.”

Outside the court, Walker, in tears, wonders why the judge couldn’t have just told her to come in next week. “I came in to do the right thing, and he made a mockery of me.”

Martinez says these kinds of decisions and judicial conduct are inevitable as long as justice courts are tied directly to the revenue of cities and counties that force them to just churn through defendants.

By the Numbers
Attorney Martinez’s major fight against the justice-court system was a case from 2007, Goodman v. West Jordan, where his client was written up for not having auto insurance while he was inside a Walmart in West Jordan. Martinez believes the cop was just trolling the parking lot for revenue when he checked his client’s plates.

Martinez used the case to challenge the constitutionality of justice courts, arguing that since justice courts are an extension of city mayors’ offices, they lack judicial independence. He’s critical of courts for only requiring a high school diploma of their judges. His case, which he ultimately lost, helped launch a review of the justice-court system that led to a number of reforms. Still, Martinez is not satisfied.

“You’ve got a system out there that’s grown [too] humongous,” Martinez says. “Five-hundred thousand traffic tickets in 2009 brings in a ton of revenue, in courts run by people who are high school grads and make $100,000 a year to convict nearly everyone that gets a ticket.”

“It’s certainly easy to make fun of justice courts,” says Richard Schwermer, the administrator over justice courts for the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts. “But most perceptions are outdated.”

Schwermer says since the Nehring Commission—the commission charged with reviewing the constitutionality of justice courts in 2008—reforms have been made, such as judges now being appointed by election committees instead of by mayors. While only county justice judges have historically been subject to retention votes to stay in office, by 2012, Schwermer says the same standards will apply to all justice court judges. They will also be subject to the same kind of review as state court judges, which include lawyer surveys and unannounced courtroom observations.

As for training, Schwermer doesn’t think it’s an issue because judges receive twice the annual vocational training as lawyers. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he says. “Some of our very best justice-court judges are not lawyer judges.”

Schwermer also says other improvements are still under close examination, like updating justice courts with audio equipment to record proceedings. In the Utah Constitution, justice courts were deigned not to be courts “of record” because defendants can appeal justice-court rulings de novo—with a completely new trial—in district court. Still, some want justice courts to have audio records for the purposes of note-keeping and to hold judges accountable for their conduct.

One court, in particular, has already applied for a grant to install digital recording technology for just such a purpose—Jensen’s Davis County Justice Court.

“So oftentimes with complaints about justice courts, it ends up being ‘he said, she said,’ ” Jensen says. “[Audio records] protect courts and those who participate and operate in the courts.”

Jensen, who admits to being brusque with defendants who slow down the flow of his busy courtroom, is confident digital records of justice courts would help all judges be on their best behavior.

“I’ll be very candid: If everything was being recorded there where you work, wouldn’t that encourage you to be better behaved?” Jensen asks.

While some reforms have taken effect since 2008, according to Utah State Courts records, it still seems like defendants who fight the law don’t have much of a chance. For Martinez, this goes to the heart of the constitutionality of the courts. Quoting Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham’s pronouncement in the Nehring Commission report, he says, that “any real separation of power is illusory” when it comes to justice courts.

He worries the problem is only made worse by the nature of the charges, since many justice-court defendants are vulnerable in a situation where getting legal representation would cost more than the cost of a fine in justice court.

“When you’re fighting a $90, $180 or even a $500 ticket, are you going to hire an attorney for $1,000 dollars?” Martinez asks.

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