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A proposal that would require new justice court judges in Utah to have law degrees won the unanimous recommendation Friday of the House Judiciary Committee after it was amended to exclude current judges and rural counties.
Sponsoring Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said giving the power to sentence defendants to someone who hasn't been previously trained in law is a bad idea.
"We don't let individuals who are not trained in medicines just start handing out prescriptions because there might not be enough doctors in the area," said Hall, an attorney.
His concern was echoed by Maybell Romero, who teaches criminal procedure and criminal law at Brigham Young University.
"The justice courts, without having law-trained judges there, they are just [ripe] for 6th Amendment violations," Romero said.
She testified it is "dangerous" to have a law, like the current one, excluding the requirement of a law degree. And she warned that having judges without such an education lowers public confidence in the court system.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, chairman of the Judicial Conduct Commission, said that "there are good law-trained and non-law-trained judges, and there are poor law-trained and non-law-trained judges."
He cited 12 public sanctions issued by the commission against law-trained judges in the last year, as opposed to only one against a judge without a law degree.
Rick Schwermer, assistant state court administrator, agreed with King that a law degree does not guarantee that someone will make a good judge, but he supported the bill, HB160S1, saying the proposal is "accelerating" a transition that is happening anyway.
Schwermer said there are currently about 50 non-law-trained judges in the state, but that number is expected to drop to about 30 in the next two years, based on retirement and age.
Committee Chairman Lavar Christensen, R-Draper and also an attorney, amended the bill to limit its application to Utah's 12 largest counties, where 90 percent of the state's population resides. The change allows people in rural areas "some additional time to transition," he said, "but it's not being forced upon them."