Samuel Morse: New law upsets the balance of judicial power in Utah

There can be no balance of power when only one person has his hand on the scales of justice.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matheson Courthouse from the top of City Hall on Thursday, April 28, 2022.

I hear my dad argue with his fellow attorneys in court every day on Zoom. Yet he never argues with the judge. The power of the gavel is the power of a god. If a single party or a single person is allowed to choose these courtroom gods, the voice of any other party or person will be powerless.

On March 21, Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law SB129, amending the provisions of the Utah Judicial Selection Act and destroying the philosophy behind it. Essentially, SB129 reshapes Utah’s process of appointing judges so that the governor may place whomever he pleases on our judicial nominating commissions. By controlling those who choose our judges, the governor will control the courts and threaten our entire system of government by eliminating the separation of powers that balances the scales of justice.

The Utah Constitution states, “Selection of judges shall be based solely upon consideration of fitness for office without regard to any partisan political consideration.” To accomplish this, before Cox signed SB129 into law, Utah utilized a merit selection process that included bipartisan nominating commissions comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers to evaluate judicial applicants.

In order to foster public confidence and abide by the ethical responsibilities and obligations of the commissions, the system suggested that members should be balanced politically, demographically and ideologically. Furthermore, this model ensured that judges would not be chosen by a single person.

The Utah State Bar expressed its strong disapproval of the bill’s modifications to Utah’s merit model, particularly those changes which entirely eliminate the requirement for partisan balance on selection commissions. As the State Bar posited in its monthly eBulletin, Utah’s method of selecting judges was a model for the rest of the nation. Now, SB129′s doing away with fairly selected, bipartisan nominating commissions trashes this gold standard.

Although I am a straight white male who has never had a family member sentenced to prison by a Utah judge, much the same as Gov. Cox, the prospect that he could dictate a draconian set of conservative values for the judges deciding the fates of Utahns disgusts me. A balance of beliefs is vital when it comes to choosing judges because, without a balance of political and ideological voices on our judicial selection committees, a life-altering political bias will worm its way into our courts.

Additionally, considering the power that judges wield in overseeing and challenging legislative and executive overreach, it is unconscionable for the executive branch to seize power over its own oversight. In relation to the Legislature, this past year, the only force stopping the implementation of legislative injustices such as Utah’s anti-abortion and anti-transgender laws has been Utah judges.

Aside from directly affecting the lives of individuals forced to appear before them, judges are the key to all forms of activism in Utah. By controlling their selection, Cox will be able to wield this authoritarian power to determine what human rights are recognized.

As SB129 allows one man to determine the members of our state’s justice system, Utah slides toward a bleak authoritarian future when the opinion of one becomes the rights of many. There can be no balance of power when only one person has his hand on the scales of justice.

Samuel Morse

Samuel Morse is a junior at Rowland Hall Upper School, Salt Lake City.