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Panel: Is Utah's judicial system fair to minorities?

Published April 10, 2013 6:16 pm

Equal treatment • Bench should mirror the population it serves, panelists say.
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Courtrooms are intimidating. They become more so, experts said Wednesday, when judges, jurors and attorneys look nothing like the person on trial.

Of the tens of thousands of defendants that make their way through Utah's courtrooms every year, the majority are ethnic and racial minorities.

But only 5 percent of Utah's district court judges identify themselves as something other than white.

This, judges and attorneys said, is a problem.

The latest in an ongoing conversation about the fairness of Utah's judicial system, a panel of judges and attorneys spoke to University of Utah students in honor of Law Day to address the question of equality: Does the state's judicial system live up to its promise of equality for all under the law?

"I think there's a consensus in this country that equality should be the goal, that everyone deserves equal treatment," Utah Court of Appeals Judge William Thorne said. "But to achieve that equality — we have a long way to go."

The issue of socioeconomic inequality in Utah's courtrooms has come under scrutiny recently as a judicial task force begins to examine the state's patchwork system for providing attorneys to poor accused of crimes.

Utah is one of only two states in the country that provides neither funding nor oversight to counties charged with organizing and implementing a system for defending poor people in criminal court — a guarantee made by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling 50 years ago.

But the poor aren't the only ones experiencing inequality in Utah's courtrooms, panelists said.

The panel discussed the infrequent appointment of minority judges, criminalization of crimes that disproportionately affect minority populations and juries not made up of a defendant's peers, as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

"The first line of our constitution is 'We the people,' " said Salt Lake legal defender Jesse Nix, president of the Utah Minority Bar Association. "But the way my clients see it — it's 'Them the people.' The judge is white, the prosecutor is white, the public defender is white. No one on the other side looks like them."

When it comes to judges, panelists said, the bench should attempt to mirror that of the population it serves.

More than 21 percent of Utahns are racial or ethnic minorities and 50 percent are women, according to 2012 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. But on the bench — in the state's Supreme Court, court of appeals, district and juvenile court — only 9 percent of judges are minorities and 24 percent are women.

Last year, 3rd District Judge Su J. Chon became the first minority to earn a spot on the bench under Gov. Gary Herbert.

Minority judges like Thorne and 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease, who identify as American Indian and Asian, respectively, said their ethnicity may not affect their ruling, but it does affect how their rulings are received.

"I find that people can take a verdict against them if they felt that they were heard and the system was fair," Thorne said. "But it has to look fair so people have confidence that the system works."

"The right ruling is the right ruling no matter who's making it," Trease added. "But to a defendant, the appearance of fairness is huge."

Diversity, the panel said, goes beyond racial difference. Gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and background all contribute to how a person sees the world, and therefore how a person may be judged in a court of law, said Grace Acosta, a private civil attorney.

Because of these ever-expanding categories, Nix said, there will always be majority and minority groups — in and beyond courtrooms — but a society should be judged by how it treats its most disenfranchised.

"Nearly four times as many American Indian and five times as many black children are removed from their homes than white children," Nix said. "These are problems of poverty, substance abuse. We need to focus on getting the parents the help they need rather than incarcerating them. Children belong with their parents, not with the state."

The panel discussion was hosted by the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: mlang@sltrib.com