Chris Buttars proposes letting Senate fire judges
Posted: 6:20:43 AM- Chris Buttars - the state senator who last session championed instruction on divine intervention and banning gay clubs at schools - now proposes giving him and his Senate colleagues the power to fire judges whose rulings they don't like.
The current judicial retention election, in which Utahns vote to keep or get rid of a judge, is inadequate, the West Jordan Republican contends.
Every judge "should have to pass a Senate confirmation vote again" when his term comes up, he said.
"That is the only way to make the public aware of some of these terrible decisions. ... I don't know where some of these decisions are coming from. Some judges just go in there and wing it," Buttars said.
Mike Mower, spokesman for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said Monday the administration hasn't reviewed Buttars' proposal, but, "We are anxious to make sure that the independence of Utah's judiciary is maintained."
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine M. Durham said, "Judges need the freedom to make hard decisions."
She said, "I'd voice a concern over anything that would put at risk the ability of judges to make fair and impartial decisions, without any fear of reprisals from those who might find those decisions unpopular."
Richard Schwermer, assistant state court administrator, said Buttars' idea has constitutional problems.
"The (Utah State) Constitution says the governor has his role to play, in nominating. The Senate has its role to play, in confirming," he said. But nowhere in the constitution does it say that the Senate gets another shot at a judge in the retention process.
For four years, Buttars has chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, holds public hearings on nominees to the bench.
"We have the cream of the crop in judges in this state," said Buttars, but every year, one or two judges "make a decision that makes no sense" and they need to be held accountable for those.
To deal with those cases, a judge up for a retention vote could be removed from office by a no-confirmation Senate vote, he said.
At the very least, through public Senate reconfirmation hearings, a judge's poor decision record could be brought to the voters' attention, increasing the likelihood that the judge could be voted out at the ballot box, Buttars said.
The Senate reconfirmation vote would apply to judges at all levels - district court, juvenile court, Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
Durham asked: "Who would define what a 'bad' decision is? Our job is to review trial judges' decisions. When they don't apply the law or define the facts based on evidence, then those decisions are reversed."
"This is a really bad idea," said Scott Daniels, a former president of the Utah State Bar, former Democratic legislator and former 3rd District judge. "This goes in the wrong direction. We want to keep judges away from political pressure, not closer to it."
Besides any constitutional concerns, "from a practical matter you would not get very qualified people to even apply to be a judge."
Attorneys seeking the bench give up their legal firm partnerships, give up their clients, with the knowledge that they will probably win judicial retention for as long as they want to be a judge, said Daniels.
"If you did something that displeased the power brokers (in the Senate), you would be out of office, without a practice, without clients. You'd have to start your practicing career all over again. Who would risk that?" he said.