Budget woes are forcing courts to cut back on judges
State court officials said Monday they plan to leave judicial vacancies unfilled indefinitely -- an unprecedented move tied to the state's budget woes.
The first casualty is Judge Judith Billing's seat on the Utah Court of Appeals, which will remain open when she retires Dec. 31. The seats of any judges who announce retirement next year -- including for district and juvenile court judges -- also could remain unfilled, said state Court Administrator Daniel Becker.
"We are running out of options to reduce spending," Becker said. "We have asked Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to suspend filling the [appeals court] position, and he has agreed to do so. We appreciate the governor understanding the necessity of this action."
Court of Appeals judges earn an annual salary of $138,750.
Holding future judicial vacancies open is one step the Utah Judicial Council has deemed necessary in light of the current budget situation, Becker said. The step is one never taken before, "as far as anyone here remembers," said courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.
The courts had already instituted a hiring freeze, and have opted to begin using electronic recording equipment rather than court reporters during homicide trials and other high-profile cases.
The courts' financial woes began in September when, during a special session of the Legislature, lawmakers required them to reduce their budget for the current fiscal year by $3.5 million, and cut $4.4 million in fiscal 2010, Becker said. Then the governor released his budget, asking the courts to cut another 1.5 percent this year.
The decision to hold off filling judicial vacancies was prompted by a recent legislative demand for additional spending cuts of up to 7.5 percent in the current fiscal year, Becker said.
Earlier this year, the governor picked 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder to fill the Court of Appeals vacancy, but the Utah Senate refused to confirm him. The Senate's vote followed opposition from the state's gun lobby, which took exception to Hilder's 2003 ruling allowing the University of Utah to enforce a weapons ban on campus.
The Court of Appeals judges will determine how to best accommodate the increased work load that will result from the vacancy, said Volmer. In the past, district court judges have sat on the appeals court in instances where an appellate judge had a conflict in hearing a case.
Volmer said the decision to hold judicial vacancies open will not affect a handful of vacancies where appointments and nominations already have been made.
The Senate last month confirmed Christine Johnson to replace retiring the 4th District Judge John Backlund, and Marvin Bagley to replace retiring 6th District Judge David Mower. Yet to be confirmed by the Senate are Huntsman appointees Janice Frost to replace 2nd District Juvenile Court Judge Diane Wilkins, and Michael DiReda to replace 2nd District Judge Roger Dutson.
Meanwhile, the 2nd District Judicial Nominating Commission has selected five nominees to replace 2nd District Court Judge Parley Baldwin, who will retire Dec. 31.
-- Seven judges who hear cases in rotating panels of three judges.
-- Hears all appeals from juvenile courts; appeals from district court that involve domestic relations; appeals of administrative proceedings by state agencies; cases transferred by the Utah Supreme Court.
-- Consists of Presiding Judge Pamela Greenwood, Russell Bench, James Davis, Carolyn McHugh, Judith Billings, Gregory Orme and William Thorne.