Utah lawmaker abandons push to elect judges

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People cast their ballots at the U of U Marriott Library during election day, Tuesday Nov. 5, 2019.

A Republican lawmaker is setting aside his proposed legislation to amend the state Constitution and elect, rather than appoint, Utah judges.

Riverton Republican Sen. Dan McCay asked members of a Senate committee on Monday to remove his bill from their agenda, and subsequently clarified that he did not wish for the proposal to be considered at a future hearing.

“I think we’re done for the session,” McCay said.

McCay did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment on his decision to pull the bill, SJR8, which was met with broad criticism when it became public in January.

In one high-profile example, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — a Republican candidate for governor whose current position oversees the state’s election — reacted to news of the bill on Twitter by writing that “it would be impossible for me to overstate what a terrible idea this is.”

McCay’s request to pull the bill from consideration followed the narrow 3-2 endorsement of another of his bills — also dealing with judicial elections — by members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee.

Utah judges currently stand for retention elections after their appointments to the bench, with an unsuccessful retention vote resulting in courtroom vacancies.

But under McCay’s SB206, the votes of a state panel that evaluates and issues recommendations on judicial retention would be listed next to a judge’s name on the ballot.

“The real problem is how do we get information into the hands of voters so that the voters have the ability to make a decision,” McCay said.

James Jenkins, a member of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, or JPEC, said he believes the bill is likely unconstitutional. He compared listing the commission’s recommendations on judges to printing other endorsements on the ballot, like a candidate for state office who received the backing of a U.S. senator.

"It amounts to campaigning on the ballot and in the voting booth," Jenkins said.

Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said that he agreed with McCay’s desire to better educate the public on judicial retention elections, which rarely have ousted a judge. But he said he was not able to vote for the bill in its current form.

“I think this is probably not the best way to do that,” Thatcher said. “But I agree it should be done.”

Other committee members who voted in favor of the legislation suggested that the topic deserves additional debate, but faces steep odds for reaching the governor’s desk.

“I can see no way you’re going to get this bill through the session,” said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

The bill will now move to the full Senate for its consideration.