Utah will not be overhauling its court system — at least, not yet.
A proposal from a state legislator that recommends reining in the power and reach of local justice courts while creating an entirely new layer of state circuit courts has been shelved this legislative session.
But that’s OK, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Peterson.
“There are a lot of moving parts involved,” Peterson said last month. “We determined it might be better to study this in collaboration with the judiciary before we move forward.”
Peterson instead drafted a proposal to create a task force meant to study the court system as it functions today, then make recommendations on how it might be improved.
The task force would be comprised of 19 members, including two state senators, four state representatives, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, the Utah attorney general, local lawyers, representatives from the justice courts, the district courts, several state committees, the League of Cities and Towns, the Association of Counties and a member of the public.
Its analysis would take two years, according to the bill.
If there are policy recommendations to make, Peterson said, they would surface in the 2016 legislative session.
“I’m not going into this with a predetermined outcome in mind — it’s about the process and having an honest look at the system,” he said. “The way I view this, the task force will act as a suggestion box. That’s going to produce the best results.”
The soon-to-be-defunct bill — HB319 — originally recommended that misdemeanor trials be taken out of the municipal justice courts and given, instead, to a new network of circuit courts.
Peterson suggested the circuit court system be manned by 37 law-trained judges, who would handle all misdemeanor cases, as well as family law disputes.
Existing district courts would handle only felony cases. Local justice courts could continue to handle infractions, like speeding tickets or parking violations.
The bill, Peterson said, was crafted in response to concerns from legislators, prosecutors and attorneys who feel the justice court system has gotten too unwieldy, become a cash cow for cities and can lock people up without reliable, uniform proceedings.
But court administrators, who laud Utah’s system for being among the most efficient and respected in the nation, called the proposed overhaul archaic and ineffective.
Assistant Court Administrator Rick Schwermer has said the courts have tried instituting circuit courts in the past, but shut them down after finding the system was too expensive and was treated, largely, like a second-class version of the district courts.
The last circuit court shut down in 1997.
Since then, the courts have moved toward the system Utah has today, with justice courts — which are run and operated by cities and counties — handling all cases filed solely as infractions and class C and B misdemeanors.
An audit of the entire court system performed several years ago revealed issues with judicial conduct and recommended that judges be subject to retention elections that include evaluations of their performance.
In 2010, legislation mandated that all judges in district and justice courts go through a more rigorous, merit-based process.
Schwermer, who sits on the committee that recommends judicial appointees to local leaders, said this has made a difference and the court system is functioning today at its highest level in decades.
Even if the task force finds issues to address, he said, it’s unlikely that it would recommend a complete overhaul — like Peterson’s original proposed legislation did.
“We look forward to demonstrating why the rest of the country looks to Utah for effective court administration and efficient court services to the public,” Schwermer said. “We have an awfully thoughtful and progressive court system here.”
According to Peterson’s new proposal — HB336 — the appointed task force would study the court system top to bottom, including juvenile courts, district courts, justice courts and appellate courts, to determine whether “adding specialized divisions or modifying existing divisions” would improve the system.
Peterson said any proposed changes would be drawn from the task force’s final report, which would be issued by November 2015.
“[The courts] talk about being extra efficient, and that’s to be applauded because we’re not wasting tax-payer money,” Peterson said. “But if we’re too efficient, there may be collateral damage that we’re not recognizing. Due process could be suffering because of that. We need to make sure it’s balanced.”
If approved, the task force will cost the state $27,800, according to state fiscal analysts.