This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
District courts in Utah hear murder cases and multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits.
Justice courts grapple with complaints of barking dogs and disputes over small amounts of money.
Though the district courts are more dramatic, the average Jane and Joe Citizen are more likely to find themselves before a justice court.
So for the past two years, a committee of the Utah Judicial Council has been investigating ways to improve justice courts, whose independence from revenue-minded local officials has been questioned.
The committee's proposals, now being circulated for community and legislative input, would phase in fundamental changes.
The proposals, however, have some local officials worried about losing judges who know the community and are dedicated to making it better. They say concerns about judicial independence can be handled by tweaking the system - such as letting voters decide whether to retain judges once they're appointed - rather than by wholesale changes.
"I'm a believer in the local justice court system," said North Salt Lake City Attorney D. Michael Nielsen. "I have never, in over 20 years, seen where any unreasonable demands were placed on a judge."
If the proposals are approved, justice court judges would be employees of the state, rather than of the local governmental entity, and would receive the same annual salary. They would serve six-year terms, be subject to a retention vote in the general elections and be required to have at least a four-year college degree.
All would work full-time as judges, with the option of part-time work eliminated. That requirement would shrink their ranks to about 58, from 108 full-time and part-time jurists who currently serve.
The changes would be adopted over nine years, with sitting judges grandfathered into the new system in some instances. In addition, many of the affected jurists will have retired or completed their current appointments by the end of the transition period in 2016, according to Judicial Council staff members.
The judges for the county justice courts now are appointed by the county commission and stand for retention every four years. City justice court judges are appointed by municipal officials, who decide at the end of the four-year terms whether to renew the contract.
Among the reasons for the study was to create uniformity in court practices and judge selection. Members of the committee - comprising justice court and district court judges, as well as court administrators - said their goals are to maintain judicial independence, promote public confidence in the justice system and preserve governments' right to have a local court.
The committee says concerns that a justice court judges' decisions are influenced by their cities' desire to raise revenues could be lessened by making the position a state employee.
Rick Schwermer, a court administrator, emphasizes that the proposals are a first draft. The study committee will consider all comments and possibly make changes before presenting recommendations to the Judicial Council for final approval, he said.
The office then will prepare legislation for consideration by Utah lawmakers in the 2008 Legislature.
Most discussion has centered on transition issues and the role of cities in appointing judges, Schwermer said. Rural officials also have expressed concern about the elimination of part-time judges, he said.
Nielsen, the North Salt Lake city attorney who also prosecutes cases for West Bountiful and Woods Cross, said the current system works well overall.
He has no objections to making justice court judges face retention elections but believes implementing some of the proposals, including disallowing cities to appoint judges, would hamper the mission of justice courts to improve the quality of life in their communities.
The jurists appointed in his three cities - a lawyer and two retired police officers - have a hands-on approach, Nielsen said. For example, when they receive a complaint about a zoning violation or an unkempt lot, all three are willing to tour the site and try to resolve the dispute, he said.
"With all due respect, do not expect that [approach] when you go to a nonlocal judge," Nielsen said.
He added that the cities do not view justice courts merely as a source of revenue. In fact, Nielsen said, many cities likely would stop sponsoring a justice court despite the loss of money, which would send all cases to state district courts.
"The cities and counties very much dislike state intervention in something they consider their prerogative," he said.
A Utah Judicial Council committee is proposing changes to justice courts, which are established by counties and cities to hear misdemeanors and ordinance violations. The proposals, many of which would require approval by the Utah Legislature, include:
* Make justice court judges state employees who get a fixed salary.
* Select judges through a committee made up of local officials, citizens and the presiding justice court judge in each judicial district.
* Implement retention elections for all judges and make their terms six years.
* Require judges to have a bachelor's degree.
* Eliminate part-time judge positions.