A rural Utah sheriff — who last year was facing criminal charges — is now a finalist to be a justice court judge.
San Juan County Sheriff Richard Eldredge is one of three candidates vying for an open justice court vacancy in Blanding.
Eldredge last year was charged with third-degree felony witness retaliation and misdemeanor reckless endangerment for an incident where he was accused of “dry-firing” a gun at a deputy in 2015.
A 7th District Court judge tossed his case in November, citing a lack of evidence presented at an earlier preliminary hearing.
Eldredge has been sheriff in the southeast Utah county since 2011, according to his profile on the Utah Sheriffs’ Association website. He got his start in law enforcement in 1991 with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, but spent most of his career working for the Utah Highway Patrol.
His background lists no legal experience — but according to Utah law, he doesn’t need any to become a justice court judge. In San Juan County and other rural areas of Utah, a candidate needs only to be at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen, a Utah resident for at least three years and have a high school diploma or GED. The candidates must also be a resident of the county in which the court is located — or an adjacent county — for at least six months.
Blanding has a vacancy after Judge William Walker resigned in January. The other two candidates are Alva Clarke III, whose occupation is listed with the courts as “retired from public education,” and Lyon Hazleton II, who is currently a justice court judge in San Juan County and Monticello. None of the candidates are currently registered attorneys with the Utah State Bar, and other background information about their education and experience was not available.
Eldredge did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
It’s not unusual in Utah for justice court candidates to have little to no legal experience. In a review of recent candidacy announcements, most of the openings in rural counties had at least one applicant who had no apparent background in the law.
One nominee for an opening in the tiny town of Orderville was a registered nurse and diner manager. (The job ultimately went to a lawyer who was already working as a justice court judge in another city.) Candidates for an opening in Kane County included a private investigator and an engineer who worked for a telephone company. The final appointee, however, was already working as a justice court judge — but he never attended law school.
In Utah district courts — which handle all felony cases and the most serious misdemeanor cases — the judges have degrees and background in law. That’s not the case in justice courts, where court officials said Thursday that only 48 of their 82 current justice court judges have law degrees.
Legislators in 2016 attempted to change the state statute so judges in the justice courts would also need a law degree or license. What ended up passing, however, was a change that required only the state’s five most populated counties to require a law degree.
That means in areas like San Juan County — where qualified attorneys are few — non-lawyer candidates like Eldredge have a shot at sitting on the judicial bench.
Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, sponsored the bill two years ago. He said Thursday he still felt strongly that all justice court judges should be trained in the law. It would help ensure judges are making the correct decisions, he said, and would increase the public’s confidence in the judicial system.
“Some people say, ‘It’s just the justice court system,’ ” he said, “[but] it is a big deal when the justice court judge deals with constitutional rights every day, including possible incarceration.”
For the Blanding opening, the Utah State Courts have started a public comment period that ends on June 26, then the mayor there has 30 days to make an appointment. The appointment must be approved by the Blanding City Council and have the sign-off of the Utah Judicial Council.
Eldredge was one of three sheriff’s office employees to be charged last year in connection to an incident in which then-deputy Todd Bristol reported that Eldredge fired an unloaded gun pointed at Bristol’s back. Bristol was later fired.
In dismissing the charges against Eldredge, Judge George Harmond wrote that prosecutors with the Utah attorney general’s office did not provide evidence that the weapon Eldredge allegedly pointed at Bristol was loaded — so it was not considered a “deadly weapon.” The retaliation charge was also dismissed after the judge found prosecutors did not prove that Eldredge fired Bristol as a result of the deputy’s allegations.