Hands off

Supreme Court should govern itself
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

We don't think they would get very far if Utah's judges or the governor tried to tell the Republicans who run the Legislature whom they should choose as their leaders. That's one reason we find ludicrous Sen. Scott Jenkins' bill to give the governor the power to choose the Utah Supreme Court's chief justice.

In Utah the governor names a lieutenant governor and appoints officers to help run the executive branch. The members of the Legislature choose speaker of the House, Senate president and majority and minority leaders. Jenkins, in fact, was elected by his peers to be majority leader.

Similarly, the five justices who sit on the Supreme Court are best able to select who among them is qualified to handle this important job. Even more to the point are the bedrocks of judicial independence and separation of powers. To give the executive branch the power to choose the Supreme Court's chief justice would upset this delicate balance.

As the "court of last resort," which rules on the constitutionality of state laws and hears appeals from lower courts, the Supreme Court must remain outside the influence of politics. As opponents of this bill have rightly argued, court rulings could be affected if an ambitious justice wanted to curry favor with the governor in hope of being selected or reappointed as chief.

Since statehood, the justices have chosen one of their own to be presiding judge. The chief justice also directs the state Judicial Council, made up of judges representing all levels of the judicial system. The council sets administrative rules and the judiciary's budget. It oversees personnel matters for the system's 1,200 employees and certifies judges for election.

It's a huge job requiring management skills as well as legal expertise. A chief justice who is not performing well can be removed at any time by a vote of the other justices.

The system works well. In fact, the Plain City Republican who wants to change it cannot point to any shortcoming.

We have to wonder, then, what is motivating Jenkins. Some conservative legislators have been unhappy with recent rulings of the court on gun rights and stream access, and a proposal to move a judgeship from the 2nd District Court in northern Utah, where Jenkins' Senate District 20 is located, to southern Utah has been a source of contention.

Tinkering with the important constitutional separation of powers and possibly subjecting the judicial branch to the influence of politics in order to retaliate would be a horrendous mistake and a gross misuse of legislative authority.