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The vast majority of court cases in Utah — including most criminal matters — are overseen by judges who may not have a law degree or license.

That's a big problem as one lawmaker sees it.

"The time has come for all judges in Utah to be law-trained and licensed to practice law," says Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City.

He is proposing legislation to clear the way for such reform — a step that would require amending the Utah Constitution, which now bars the Legislature or courts from requiring justice court judges to be licensed attorneys.

Utah district courts, which handle all felony cases and the most serious misdemeanors, are run by judges who must have degrees and backgrounds in law. But it's a different story in justice courts, where a majority of judges — 54 of 98 — are not lawyers.

"Some people have indicated, 'Well it's just the justice court system, it's not that big of a deal,' " says Hall. "But it is a big deal when a justice court judge deals with constitutional rights every day, including incarceration. A justice court judge has the ability to put someone in jail."

In fact, anyone going through the court system in Utah is nearly twice as likely to have their case heard in justice court than district court. State records show justice courts handled nearly 460,000 cases last year, compared to just under 270,000 in district courts.

Some 73,000 of those justice-court cases were criminal cases, mostly comprising class B and class C misdemeanors, compared to 40,000 criminal cases in district court.

Hall faces a challenge. Amending the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote by lawmakers and voter approval. And he has some selling to do.

Utah justice courts underwent a major reform in 2008 that has improved it markedly, said Richard Schwermer, assistant state court administrator.

Those changes included establishing a formal nominating process, standardizing pay and subjecting justice court judges to the same type of evaluations and retention elections as other judges.

It has also resulted in a shift away from non-attorney judges.

"We've had, I think, only three judges appointed since 2008 who weren't lawyers," Schwermer said.

A requirement like the one supported by Hall raises substantial logistical problems, he said. What happens to the dozens of current judges who are not attorneys? And how do you impose such a mandate in rural Utah, where qualified and interested lawyers may be few and far between?

Cordell Pearson, a Circleville resident and veteran of lawman, recently was picked as the new justice court judge for Salina and Aurora.

"How many lawyer applicants to you think they had for the judgeship?" asks Schwermer. "There was one and that lawyer applicant happened to be the judge in another county."

As a former police officer and sheriff, Pearson's background had stronger ties to the justice system than some. One Utah County justice court judge is a retired high-school choral director, a judge in Rich County is a cattle rancher, one in Beaver County is a retired dairy farmer and a judge in Wayne County spent his career in construction.

"Requiring judges to have a law license will not only increase the likelihood that judges get their rulings right, but will increase confidence in our justice court system," Hall says.

An Intermountain Healthcare attorney, Hall says he's proposing the change not because of any one case or run-amok judge, but based on two reports recently released by the Utah Judicial Council looking at problems in the state's legal defense for poor people.

A report prepared by the Sixth Amendment Center, found numerous cases where defendants' constitutional rights to an attorney were blatantly, if unintentionally, violated.

In one example, a young woman in a rural justice court was sentenced to jail without being offered the right to counsel because she admitted to drug use and the judge said she needed mental-health treatment for depression.

In another case, a defendant in an urban justice court asked for an attorney, saying he couldn't afford one. The judge told him if he pleaded guilty he would suspend the 90-day jail sentence, "so I can't give you an attorney at taxpayer expense." The report pointed out that that denial of counsel was illegal because if the defendant violated terms of his probation, including failing to pay the $300 fine, he could land in jail.

But Schwermer points out that neither report blames problems with Utah's indigent defense system on non-attorney judges. Rather, both point to inadequate funding and oversight of court-appointed and locally budgeted legal defenders.

Hall's proposal, he says, is "the wrong medicine for this disease."

Schwermer said the significant problems with indigent defense will be addressed in forthcoming legislation.

Hall doesn't believe his resolution should be so easily dismissed.

"Both reports conclude that the justice court judges need to be better trained," he said. "A law degree and passing the bar exam would help with that training."

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