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Civil war pits city officials against justice court in West Jordan

Dueling suits between city and its judge are settled, but civil-rights case goes to court.

First Published Aug 11 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 17 2014 06:02 pm

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.

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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."

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"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.

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