The Utah Supreme Court censured a judge Tuesday because he made too much money for three consecutive years.
Box Elder County justice court judge Kevin Christensen’s salary exceeded the legal limit of $132,150 from 2009 through 2011, a Utah Supreme Court decision states. Christensen will now have to pay back the extra salary and has been formally censured.
Judicial Conduct Commission (JCC) executive director Colin R. Winchester said Tuesday that Christensen will have to pay back $22,172. He has three years to return the money without accruing interest. Winchester also called the censure the "most severe" penalty a judge can face without being suspended or removed from office.
Christensen did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday. His attorney declined to comment.
Christensen serves as a judge in the Box Elder County, Willard, Garland and Tremonton justice courts, all of which contribute independently to his salary. In 2009, Christensen’s pay from his positions on various benches added up to $139,908; in 2010 and 2011, his salary was $139,360 and $139,354, respectively.
Those numbers are higher than the yearly income of Utah’s district court judges, which is $132,150. Per state law, justice court judges can’t make more money than district court judges.
The Supreme Court decision states that Christensen learned his salary was too high in 2010. He claimed to have immediately contacted municipal leaders to discuss the issue, the decision adds, but after several months his salary still hadn’t gone down.
As a result, the JCC issued formal charges against Christensen in November 2011. Winchester said that by May 2012 Christensen and the JCC had agreed to a "negotiated resolution" to the case that involved the censure and the requirement to repay the money.
Christensen then appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the salary cap. Justices declined to address that issue in their ruling while supporting the JCC’s recommendations for censure and repayment.
The decision says that as of January 2012, Christensen’s salary no longer exceeded the legal cap.
Winchester said Christensen will have to work with municipal leaders to determine who gets the money he pays back. Winchester also said he doubted that Christensen intentionally earned too much, though he could have handled the issue better.
"I think he was aware of the problem and could have taken care of it much faster than he did," Winchester said.
Christensen’s censure will have little real-world impact on his career until he comes up for retention. At that time, Winchester said, the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission will look at Christensen’s record and make a recommendation to voters about whether they should keep him on the bench. It will then be up to voters.
Representatives for the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Christensen was appointed to the Box Elder County Justice Court in May 1996. He is a graduate of Weber State University and the Gonzaga University School of Law. He was in private practice before being appointed to the bench.
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