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Utah court commissioner resigns after investigation

Published August 22, 2013 9:03 am

3rd District Court commissioner was to be disciplined after investigation into professional, personal conduct.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Court Commissioner Thomas Arnett retired three months early from his position with Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court on Tuesday, leaving behind questions about his behavior that may never be answered.

Arnett said his abrupt retirement was a direct response to an order from Utah Supreme Court Justice Matthew Durrant that would have prevented him from hearing any future cases after more than 20 years on the bench.

The order, which Durrant signed Friday, banned Arnett from conducting court proceedings "to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."

It was the latest move in the wake of a months-long probe into Arnett's professional and personal conduct.

Court officials declined to comment on the motivation for the order or the specifics of the alleged investigation, citing employee privacy laws. But Arnett said the order was the product of a grudge match between him and court officials, who he said were unhappy the investigation had been closed.

"They don't like me because I'm not a quiet, go-along-with-the-flow kind of person," Arnett said Wednesday. "I tend to say things about the bureaucracy and stand up for my beliefs."

Court commissioners like Arnett have almost all of the authority of a judge in overseeing the cases before them, but are appointed — not elected — employees.

Arnett's problems with judicial administrators intensified in recent months, he said, when the Court Commissioner Conduct Committee opened an investigation sparked, in part, by allegations of impropriety and misconduct made by his ex-wife.

Beth Arnett detailed her allegations in a March letter to court administrators. An investigation followed.

But the investigation was dismissed this week with prejudice, which means the case cannot be reopened.

Arnett told The Tribune on Wednesday that his ex-wife is "vindictive" and tried to ruin his career by writing the letter. He pointed to the investigation's dismissal as proof of his innocence.

"I have nothing to hide," he said.

According to Brent Johnson, the Administrative Office of the Courts' general counsel, there are several reasons why a conduct investigation could be dismissed: if the allegations are false, if the allegations are true but do not violate the judicial code of conduct or if the person who is under scrutiny leaves the employ of the courts.

"If a commissioner resigns or retires, or their term ends, then a complaint would be dismissed because the court no longer has authority over them," Johnson explained.

A different investigative body, called the Judicial Conduct Commission, investigates complaints against judges.

Beth and Thomas Arnett divorced in April 2012, after several years of apparent contention. In 2009, Thomas Arnett filed for a protective order against his then-wife.

The fact that she would attack him professionally, on the eve of his retirement, Thomas Arnett said, is not a surprise.

Arnett, 66, has been looking forward to his retirement for months — the leisure, the travel, the time to himself.

He just didn't expect it to happen so soon.

But when he received the order from the chief justice barring him from presiding over cases, he felt it was time to move on.

Arnett graduated from the University of Utah College of Law in 1976, before going into private practice for about 15 years.

He has served on a committee examining professional conduct for the Utah Supreme Court Advisory Committee, and on the Utah Judicial Council Committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution. He is also a faculty member of the Utah Judicial Institute.

No one has yet been appointed to take Arnett's place.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: @marissa_jae