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The Utah House decided Thursday that it's time to begin shifting away from a situation where most court cases in Utah — including most criminal matters — are overseen by judges who may not have a law degree.

Representatives voted 44-28 to pass HB160, and sent it to the Senate, to require justice court judges in the five largest counties — Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber and Washington — to be law school graduates, which is now not the case. Amendments exempted the state's 24 smaller counties, where the largest number of non-attorneys serve as judges.

Also, those non-lawyers who are now serving would be allowed to continue on the bench.

Judges who are attorneys now oversee Utah's district courts, which handle all felony cases and the most serious misdemeanors. But it's a different story in justice courts, where a majority of judges — 54 of 98 — are not lawyers.

The Tribune recently reported, for example, that one justice court judge is a retired dairy farmer, another is a former high school choral director and one spent his career in construction.

State records show that justice courts handled nearly 460,000 cases last year, compared to just under 270,000 in district courts.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City and an attorney, said the change "will increase confidence in our justice court system." Also, he said, "The likelihood that legal decisions are correct will increase."

But others argued that a law degree is not needed to make wise decisions.

"Just like our Legislature, I want our judges to come from all backgrounds … not just those who attend law school," said Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain. "We should open up our judgeships to anyone who is capable of making a good decision."

But Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, a lawyer, said attorneys who now appear before non-lawyer judges are able to "out-guess" them because of a better knowledge of the law and its loopholes — and the change should improve the courts.

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, also an attorney, pointed to recent studies commissioned by the Utah Judicial Council that showed justice courts have a poor record of appointing counsel when constitutionally required for people who cannot afford it, possibly resulting in a higher conviction rate than expected.

But Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, complained that attorneys have made the justice system "so convoluted, so corrupt" that most people cannot dare to represent themselves. He said that may still be possible with fair-minded judges who are not lawyers.

Hall said he was disappointed that his bill was watered down to exclude rural areas, but did what was possible politically.

"It is still applicable to 80 percent of the state's population," he said. "So, it is a good incremental change that I think is good for citizens in those counties."