Utah's court system could be in for a radical makeover that would greatly scale back local justice courts and create an entirely new layer of state circuit courts, returning to a model eliminated in Utah more than 15 years ago.
Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, who is drafting legislation to overhaul the court system, said justice courts are ill-equipped to handle "meatier cases," like drunken driving and domestic violence cases, that can and frequently do land the defendant in jail.
"Part of this is just an understanding that there are efficiencies gained by specialization," Peterson said. "And, in dispensing justice, it would be better for a population, from a justice perspective, to have specialists handling certain kinds of cases."
But state court officials, who do not staff or manage locally run justice courts, said the overhaul would ruin a "model system" and create widespread logistical and financial problems for Utah.
"We have a model court system in terms of efficiency and fairness; one of the best in the country," said Assistant Court Administrator Rick Schwermer. "Why would we go backwards 20 years? Other states are trying to accomplish what we have; why would we go back to a system that's inefficient, extraordinarily expensive and antiquated?"
The proposal • Peterson and others want to take misdemeanor trials out of the municipal justice courts and create a new network of circuit courts, with 37 law-trained judges, to handle those cases, as well as family law disputes.
Existing district courts would handle only felony cases. Local justice courts could continue to handle infractions, like speeding tickets or parking violations.
"We're just trying to create an environment where justice can be carried out in the most equitable way possible, with specialists at the helm," said Peterson, who plans to present his bill at legislative meetings later this month.
The move is prompted by concerns from legislators, prosecutors and defense attorneys that the justice court system has gotten too unwieldy, become a cash cow for cities and can lock people up without reliable, uniform proceedings.
Among the biggest concerns is that justice courts are not "courts of record."
That doesn't mean they don't keep records, such as audio recordings or transcripts, court officials said. It means when a justice court case is appealed, the process starts over again in district court. Defendants get a new judge and a new trial, but cases do not progress to the state's court of appeals.
This, critics said, is problematic.
When the court of appeals rules on a case, it creates case law, which refines and directs how that law should be interpreted in the future, said Steve Burton, chairman of a legislative committee for the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
When justice court appeals act, essentially, as a do-over, that doesn't happen.
"You need the appellate process to refine the law. That isn't really happening under the present system with certain kinds of cases," Burton said, citing DUI and domestic violence cases as a few examples. "It's an issue of checks and balances, of constitutionality."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he has had concerns for some time about giving justice court judges the authority to incarcerate people without necessarily having the legal expertise to do so and in a court where the proceedings aren't recorded.
The joke among prosecutors, he said is, "If a tree falls in a justice court, it doesn't make a sound."
"Whenever you have a situation where you can impact people's liberty interest that is, you can jail them the idea of not being able to have a transparent and objective recording is troubling," he said.
It can result in different jurisdictions enforcing laws differently and, in serious cases, appeals to the district court demand a new trial, creating inefficiencies and additional hardship for witnesses in domestic violence and similar cases.
Gill, who has not seen Peterson's legislation, said it made sense years ago to save money and have judges who weren't trained in the law, because the state didn't have the resources. But now, he said, there are better options available.
Deja vu • Circuit courts are not a new concept in Utah.
The circuit court system with circuit courts handling misdemeanor trials and district courts the felonies operated for decades until it was disbanded by the Legislature in 1991 after a widespread review found circuit courts were hampering, rather than helping, the state's implementation of justice. The last circuit court shut down in 1997.
The two-tiered system was too expensive to run, and the circuit courts were treated like a second-class version of the district courts, Schwermer said.
Justice courts, which have existed since the state's founding, were not an immediate solution to the state's circuit court problem, Schwermer said. But as the state began to phase out circuit courts, justice courts which are run and operated by cities and counties eventually took on all cases filed solely as infractions and class C and B misdemeanors.
In the early 1990s, district court officials did a statewide tour of justice courts and imposed regulations and restrictions after finding judges were being appointed by mayors with little regard for their credentials, and judges were treated more like city or county employees than judges.
Over the last few years, the state has pushed justice courts to be more accountable and transparent, and to operate more independently of the cities or counties in which they preside although they remain accountable to city officials.
In 2010, legislation mandated justice court judges be subject to retention elections just like district court judges and new appointees go through a more rigorous, merit-based process.
Schwermer, who sits on the committee that recommends judicial appointees to local leaders, said these measures, paired with judicial performance evaluations and an effort to educate local officials about the need for an independent judiciary has made a difference.
"All of this is really aimed to ensure judges don't have to look over their shoulders in making decisions," he said. "We want to make sure we have judges in place that understand it's more important for the guy who just got charged with a DUI to get treatment and apply what he would have paid in fines toward treatment and therapy. We'd rather have him spending those resources on not committing those offenses again than helping to fund the city or county."
'Cash cows' • Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who is a lawyer, said he worries that justice courts have become "profit centers" for cities.
"I'm a little concerned where towns or cities … are raising a boatload of money from this kind of activity," King said. "Whether it's speeding or some other type of infraction, the cities and towns have the opportunity to raise a lot of money from that, and they set it up so they do raise a lot of money from that, and I'm not confident that justice is being served."
King said he also is uneasy with the way cities go out and hire justice court judges, who then have an incentive to deliver revenue or the city will find someone else who can.
State Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is among those concerned that cities use the courts to generate revenue.
"The kind of things they're able to sentence people to, I don't believe, should be handled by justice courts," Stephenson said. "I have also heard some justice court judges are under pressure, or have been in some jurisdictions, to produce revenue, and I don't think that should ever be the objective of a court."
Stephenson supports a provision in the bill where municipal justice courts would give up the fines levied, which could then be pooled to support the courts or redistributed to the cities, eliminating the incentive for the courts to rack up big fines.
But the Utah League of Cities and Towns took issue with the motivation for this proposal, saying justice courts are hardly the revenue generator so many think they are. In fact, said policy analyst Roger Tew, the courts can be more of a hassle than they are worth.
"It's a huge misinterpretation that these justice courts are enormous cash cows that [cities] just can't wait to grab onto," said Tew, who works with the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which represents nearly 250 local governments in Utah. "The aggravation factor sometimes outweighs whatever revenue's there. ... We have some big cities that don't have a justice court, like Layton or Bountiful. These cities would rather try cases in district court so they only have to do it once. They see the justice court appeals process as a waste of time."
Tew added that state courts generate revenue, too, but the criticisms of district courts aren't the same.
"Do courts make money? Yeah. State courts make a lot of money," Tew said. "The underlying premise is you hope to have the users of the system at least bear some of the costs of the system. It's the same with justice courts, the only difference being the administration of justice is being funded by money collected at a local level."
If the state were to take on the responsibility of re-implementing a circuit court system, Tew said, cities would lose some revenue, but they would also have fewer costs associated with supporting local courts. Most cities, he guessed, wouldn't complain about that.
"I bet the state would, though," he said. "I doubt they have the money to support a whole new system."
They don't, Schwermer said.
He said the court's budget, which has seen little growth in recent years as district courts have tried to cut costs by streamlining production and eliminating staff positions, is stretched as it is.
"It would be extraordinarily expensive," Schwermer said. "And why should we spend all this money to implement a system that seems archaic?"
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