Civil war pits city officials against justice court in West Jordan
A fierce volley of accusations between West Jordan's Justice Court and city officials including claims of civil-rights abuses, judicial misconduct in domestic-violence cases and attempted power grabs has quieted down just as the allegations have reached federal court.
In a lawsuit filed last month, Shelley Thomas, supervisor of the justice court's clerks, claimed that investigators and prosecutors sexually harassed her, threatened her and lied about a subpoena to get hold of documents in a now-dismissed criminal case against Judge Ronald E. Kunz.
It's been a long road: three years of internal and legal wrangling that has the smack of a civil war in this growing city of 108,000. At the heart of the conflict are two competing views of how independent the justice court is or should be from the city that created it.
Public officials say the fight has died down. They point to two civil actions the city has settled in recent days: a pending lawsuit by the judge and an attempt by the city to have the judge disqualified from the bench.
A copy of the settlement obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open-records request shows the city, in addition to dropping its 3rd District Court case to unseat Kunz, agreed to pay the judge $10,000 to cover his legal fees on top of $32,000 previously paid for his expenses in the criminal case. Additionally, Kunz has been promised a one-hour closed-door meeting with the City Council to air his grievances on personnel matters and the "related topic of judicial independence."
For his part, the judge has vowed not to assist Thomas in her lawsuit.
"We're moving forward," says City Manager Richard Davis. "We're very fortunate to have resolved our differences and move forward."
But behind the scenes, Thomas' suit has prompted the city to engage outside counsel because its city attorney and prosecuting attorney are named defendants and city officials are providing no details as to the potential cost to taxpayers.
A notice of claim filed jointly last year by Thomas and Kunz accused city officials of a host of wrongdoing, including defamation, conspiracy, unlawful entry, intimidation, harassment and retaliation. Kunz has since "decided to go ahead and let bygones be bygones," plaintiffs' attorney Keith Stoney says.
Davis says the judge and city officials have agreed they are "just going to move on with our relationship from here."
"I have been over to watch the judge administer the court and he does a great job, he does a very professional job. I think he's a good judge and I think we have an increasingly better relationship with him," Davis says.
That's a far cry from allegations the city has lobbed at Kunz for years.
Crimes and bias • In documents obtained by The Tribune, city attorneys accused Kunz of criminal misconduct in leaking confidential information, bias and conflict of interest. They have sought criminal prosecution, judicial discipline and, in a lawsuit filed last year, his removal from the bench. In their motion to disqualify the judge, prosecutors went so far as to declare that "the city of West Jordan will not appear in front of Judge Kunz" while the matter was pending. The City Council also approved a resolution that would allow Taylorsville Justice Court to handle cases from West Jordan.
Neither of those Kunz workarounds was utilized, says Davis.
The turmoil began in 2011 when city officials filed two complaints against Kunz with the state Judicial Conduct Commission, court documents show. In one case, the city claimed Kunz recused himself from a domestic violence case against his neighbor but continued to meddle in the case, criticizing the victim and pressuring a victim advocate to give the neighbor access to his children.
The city's second allegation dealt with an earlier, unrelated domestic violence case that became a subject of controversy when critics claimed Kunz coddled the suspect. In defending his decision, the city claimed, Kunz had illegally shared the defendant's confidential criminal records with a group of people, including a City Weekly reporter.
The Judicial Conduct Commission found the allegations "troubling but relatively minor misbehavior" and issued no public sanction. On appeal, the commission confirmed the findings, standing by a warning with no disciplinary action.
West Jordan City Attorney Jeff Robinson then asked Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to investigate the allegations from the second case. In August 2012, Kunz was charged with misdemeanor unlawful dissemination of criminal history, a Class B misdemeanor.
West Valley Justice Court Judge Brendan McCullagh found Kunz not guilty after throwing out evidence he ruled had been illegally seized from Kunz's desk in violation of his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights.
Civil-rights lawsuit • Thomas' lawsuit stems from that investigation and seizure of records. Agents with the Utah State Bureau of Investigation had obtained a subpoena for the documents, but according to the lawsuit, Thomas and Kunz were never formally served. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, the agents, accompanied by West Jordan assistant city prosecutor Stuart Williams, approached Thomas on July 10, 2012 four days after the deadline on the subpoena. They asked Thomas for the case file and a binder Kunz allegedly prepared for a meeting with his critics, but did not show her the subpoena, the lawsuit claims.
As Thomas searched for the materials in the days that followed, Robinson allegedly refused twice to provide the subpoena and "yelled at" another justice court judge in a "tirade" when she asked to see it. The lawsuit also claims Robinson told Thomas that the subpoena was addressed to "the city," when in fact it was addressed to "custodian of records" at the justice court.
The state investigators accused Thomas of lying about not knowing where the records were and accused Kunz of taking them out of the office to "sanitize" them, the lawsuit states. After a meeting in which Robinson allegedly threatened Thomas' job by saying the city manager "was aware of what was going on," Robinson ordered his deputy, Williams, to go with Thomas and search Kunz's office while Kunz was on vacation, the lawsuit claims. Williams allegedly told Thomas to search through personal belongings in Kunz's desk, where she found the binder in a locked drawer.
Robinson and Williams "were acting as police officers," said Stoney, Thomas' attorney. "They had no authority to do that."
Thomas filed a grievance with the city, claiming Robinson and his staff had created undue hostility, and Kunz wrote to Davis, the city manager, claiming Robinson's and Williams' behavior was against city policy and potentially criminal. The city found Thomas' complaints to be unsubstantiated.
The lawsuit also claims that in 2010, Williams and a legal secretary pounded on an office window to get Thomas' attention as she walked by outside and then held up a sign that read, "Show us your ?" The lawsuit said the city did not respond to her report of sexual harassment.
Separation of powers • Mayor Kim Rolfe and city manager Davis both declined to comment on the suit on the advice of attorneys, nor did they identify the outside counsel hired to handle the case.
"I can't comment on [outside counsel] yet. I'm not trying to sidestep the issue at all but at this moment I can't comment on that," Rolfe says. He called the council into a special closed-door session Saturday to discuss elected officials' options and obligations going forward. Another closed-door meeting is planned Wednesday.
But Rolfe and Davis both express optimism that they've weathered the worst of the divisive battle over what is at essence a separation-of-powers question.
The justice court is created by the city, and court employees are paid by the city, but the judge oversees them as an independently elected official.
"Cities don't like the idea that they're losing control of their justice courts," says Stoney, who has represented Kunz as well as Thomas. "They can't tell the judge what to do and how to [rule]."
Davis calls the whole tumultuous affair a learning experience.
"The judge [Kunz] certainly is very much a champion for judicial independence. I think that is very necessary. But there still exists for those of us on the administrative side some ambiguity," he says.
"There's no doubt the court employees are our employees but without violating that judicial independence, how much can we do to exercise administrative jurisdiction there? We're learning and it's ambiguous and we're bumping around a little bit and I think that's been part of the problem in the past."