Robert Gehrke: Despicable crimes against children warrant outrage, but don’t blame this Utah judge

(Photo courtesy of Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office) Douglas Eugene Saltsman.

Nearly 30,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that Utah 3rd District Judge Douglas Hogan be recalled after he handed down what is perceived as a lenient sentence to a child pornographer.

Hogan sentenced Doug Saltsman, who is the chief executive of a tech company, to 210 days in jail after Saltsman was convicted of having child porn on his computer.

“I was horrified when I heard about this case,” Cathy Hoffman, a survivor of sex trafficking who is now a victim’s advocate told FOX13 News. “It’s a green light to do whatever you want. For every victim that has gone through something like that, it’s a slap in the face.”

Just the descriptions of the files Saltsman was stockpiling are nauseating, depictions of young kids — some described in court documents as toddlers — being sexually exploited, including raped. Investigators collected more than 13,000 files from his computer and sent them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s law enforcement clearinghouse.

But the fury directed at Judge Hogan is misplaced.

Robert Gehrke

First, despite the volume of pornographic material recovered, the Utah Attorney General’s Office only charged Saltsman with 10 felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. In March, Saltsman made a deal, agreeing to plead guilty to three felonies in exchange for prosecutors dismissing the remaining seven.

Under the terms of the deal, the attorney for the state and the defendant agreed to ask the judge for the 210-day jail sentence and four years probation — the maximum recommended sentence for a first-time offender under guidelines from the Utah Sentencing Commission.

The commission is now defending Hogan.

“Everyone stipulated to this and that’s why we feel like he did everything right,” said Marshall Thompson, director of the commission.

That particular guideline has been in place for at least 14 years and has never been controversial in the past, he said, but added that the commission would be happy to consider public input to change the guidelines.

“This is not unusual for cases like this,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement. “For a second-degree felony, unless there was physical violence or a live victim instead of images of child pornography with unknown children, this was a standard sentence.”

Simply put: Hogan did his job.

And for the effort, he has been vilified, threatened and pressured to quit or be driven from the bench — this for a judge who, when he was evaluated before his retention election in 2018 rated above average in every major category and received a unanimous recommendation from the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission that he be retained.

It’s worth pointing out here that attempts to threaten Hogan with a recall election are hollow. Utah doesn’t have a recall law for any official, elected or appointed, which brings me to a larger point.

There’s no doubt the justice system and all its shortcomings can be frustrating, maddening even, especially when it seems justice is not served and I understand the desire for accountability.

But I’ve also come to the position that the mob mentality will only make the justice system worse — and I say that as a reformed member of the mob.

A little over three years ago I wrote one of my first columns about Judge Thomas Low for his comments praising convicted child rapist Keith Robert Vallejo as an “extraordinary man” and, choking back tears, saying “great men sometimes do bad things.”

There was massive public blowback and I grabbed a pitchfork and joined in, demanding that Low resign and calling on the Legislature to pass a law allowing for recall of judges. I was furious and, in hindsight, I was wrong.

Low’s offending comments aside, he sent Vallejo to prison for life.

More importantly, I’ve come to see the judicial recall as a dangerous mechanism more likely to be weaponized and do more harm than good.

If we go down that path, every time a judge makes a ruling that is right on the law but contrary to public opinion, he or she will have to think twice. Big money interests would be able to pressure judges with the threat of a well-organized and well-funded campaign to have them forced off the bench if their rulings aren’t to the special interest’s liking.

I’ve written before about how electing judges is a horrible idea, particularly the need to solicit contributions. The same problems apply to recall elections.

We probably do need more accountability for judges, and perhaps a higher threshold in retention elections might help.

But while I understand the allure of a judicial recall, leaving it in the hands of infuriated voters is not the answer, especially when — as in Hogan’s case — a good judge simply did his job correctly.