SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative battle is brewing over the Utah Judicial Council's efforts to fund a new juvenile court judge in southern Utah with money saved by leaving a spot on the 2nd District bench unfilled.
The switch would require legislative action, but some lawmakers are saying the council overstepped its authority by not moving to replace retired 2nd District Judge Rodney Page earlier this year.
"A few people decided to make a policy decision and skip the legislative process," Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said. "I have a problem with that."
Killpack said that "appears to be political maneuvering" and suggested there may need to be changes next session to delineate how much control the council should have over filling court vacancies.
The council is responsible for nominating candidates to fill openings on the bench. The governor makes the appointment, subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, said the courts don't have the authority to leave a judgeship vacant. "No one is above the law, not even the courts," he said. "It's a power grab … basically, they're trying to force the Legislature into a corner."
But Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, who'll sponsor the bill making the switch between the two court districts, said the council did nothing wrong.
Because the state is facing another year of budget shortfalls, Urquhart said it's not likely money would be found for a new 5th District judge.
"To me, this is a proper allocation of resources," he said, especially since the courts in the area he represents have the highest workload in the state.
"Something has to be done," Urquhart said. "The courts and other agencies are trying to help us get control of the budget by delaying some actions."
Dan Becker, administrative officer of the courts, said eight judgeships have been held open for up to 11 months in the current budget year to prevent furloughs.
Becker said the council started talking about seeking the switch in August, as part of annual budget discussions. The recommendation came at the council's November meeting.
The courts were assured by legal counsel they could leave the 2nd District spot vacant, Becker said, and the governor and some legislative leaders have already been told about the plan.
"Nobody likes to lose resources," he said. "But this was a case where the council had to make a decision where their most important need was."
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