Utah Chief Justice Matthew Durrant on Tuesday asked state lawmakers to appropriate more funds for hiring and retaining qualified judicial assistants in the state.
Durrant, who was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court by former Republican Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt in 2000, made his budget requests to the Legislature at the annual State of Judiciary address during the first day of the 2022 General Session.
Ten years ago, Durrant said the three-year turnover rate among judicial assistants sat around 8.65%. At the end of 2021, the turnover rate ballooned to an “unsustainable” 25%. On average judicial clerks in Utah earn less than 20% of market value, Durrant noted in his address, making it more difficult to retain qualified judicial assistants. It’s why Durrant is requesting $3.9 million in ongoing funds to recruit and retain skilled judicial assistants, who account for 40% of all court employees.
“Continuing to pay our judicial assistants at rates so significantly below market value puts critical judicial branch functions at risk,” Durrant said in a prerecorded message to lawmakers. “Despite doing everything possible to address this issue internally, we need legislative assistance and budget prioritization.”
Last year, the Utah Legislature granted the judicial council a one-time sum of $802,000 to support its IT department. Now, Durrant is asking lawmakers to make that an ongoing contribution.
Amid the pandemic, Durrant said tens of thousands of people have taken advantage of virtual court proceedings.
“In many respects, virtual court has provided greater access to justice than ever before, bringing court to the people, rather than requiring people to come to a courthouse,” he said. “Attorneys, parties, and witnesses have avoided travel time and expenses by appearing remotely. People located in rural areas were able to seek the help of a far-broader array of attorneys from all areas of the state without having to pay the often prohibitive expense associated with travel.”
Going virtual, however, has also resulted in higher costs, delays in court proceedings and connectivity issues, he said.
Durrant also requested unspecified funds to hire a public outreach coordinator, a statewide treatment court coordinator, a coordinator to assist with guardianship cases and a “much-needed” second juvenile court judge in the Sixth Judicial District to serve residents in Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne, Garfield and Kane counties.
Durrant also highlighted different ways the judicial council is making legal aid more accessible and affordable to low-income Utahns.
“For most people, legal assistance is out of reach,” Durrant said. “Lawyers as a group are civic-minded people. They give of their time on a pro bono basis at admirable levels. But we cannot pro bono our way out of the access to justice crisis.”
Those efforts include MyCase, an online portal that allows Utahns to access their court cases; the Online Dispute Resolution program, dubbed the “pajama court,” the Office of Legal Services Innovation; and the newly established Office of Fairness and Accountability, which seeks to tackle the issue of bias in the court system.
After Durrant’s remarks, Senate President Stuart Adams thanked the chief justice and said meeting virtually during the pandemic has been met with challenges.
“(I) appreciate your efforts to try to bring more help, legal help to people that need that help,” he said. “Your budget requests, we’ll fully acknowledged them and we’ll look at them and appreciate the great things you and the justices, and the other judges and their staff, do throughout the state.”