Commentary: Writer unfairly demeaned a qualified judge

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Judge Christine S. Johnson, listens to proceedings as Jerrod Baum appears for a hearing in front of in the 4th District Court, in Provo, Thursday, April 26, 2018. Baum is accused of killing 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson in December and dumping their bodies into an abandoned mine shaft.

On Oct. 20, Holly Richardson urged readers of her op-ed to vote against retention of Judge Christine S. Johnson of the Fourth Judicial District. We have the following concerns about the opinion:

Richardson referenced five cases as representative of a “pattern of leniency on abusers.” Johnson was appointed to the bench in October 2008. In 10 years she has presided over thousands of felony cases. A sampling of five cases does not fairly represent Johnson’s body of work nor accurately demonstrate her sentencing patterns.

Like all state judges, Judge Johnson makes felony sentencing decisions only after being informed by matrices promulgated by the Utah State Sentencing Commission, pre-sentence investigations prepared by Adult Probation and Parole, arguments from prosecutors and defense counsel, consideration of victim statements, etc. It does not appear Richardson consulted with prosecutors, defense counsel, Adult Probation and Parole agents, or law enforcement officers to inform her opinion.

We do not attempt to address the particular sentences in these five cases here except to note that a simple review of court records would have revealed that much of the information in the op-ed was, in fact, not only incorrect, but grossly ignored what Johnson ordered in those cases. We believe a fairer opinion writer would have sampled a larger number of cases and sourced a wider base of those persons and agencies typically involved in the judge’s sentencing decisions before pronouncing the writer’s conclusions.

The opinion criticized Johnson for having imposed sentence on a defendant she had represented “in three previous cases, a relationship she failed to disclose” implying the state’s attorneys were purposely and unfairly left unaware of the judge’s prior attorney-client relationship with that defendant. A fairer opinion would have acknowledged that the names of defendants’ counsel are matters of public record and that Johnson’s representation of the defendant in those previous case would have also been in the personal memories of several Utah County Attorney staff prosecutors.

We are particularly concerned that the opinion was printed on the same weekend that mail-in ballots were being delivered to voters. As with her selective and small sampling of cases and limited input from sentencing participants, the timing of Richardson’s op-ed belies an attempt at an October surprise rather than a purpose to accurately educate voters. We are disappointed The Salt Lake Tribune editors approved the timing, much less the substance of this opinion. A fairer opinion would have been timed so as to allow for, if not invite contradictory opinions in sufficient time for them to also be considered by voters.

Richardson’s opinion piece inaccurately portrays and unfairly demeans a judge we have found to be consistently prepared, thorough, judicious and professional.

Jeffrey Buhman is the Utah County Attorney. Thomas H. Means is director of the Utah County Public Defender Association.