Uintah Basin has 'exceptional' need for judges, state court administrator says

Published: Tuesday, May 29 2012 6:47 p.m. MDT

VERNAL — The Uintah Basin's lone state senator said he will sponsor legislation in January to add two judges to the bench in Utah's 8th Judicial District.

"I believe that we are already behind where we need to be in the 8th District Court," state Sen. Kevin Van Tassell told the Utah Judicial Council on Tuesday.

"I want this group to know, if you can support (the new judgeships), I am prepared to carry the legislation through the Senate and into the House," the Vernal Republican said. 

Judicial Council members traveled to Vernal for their monthly meeting so they could gather input from elected officials, judges and attorneys concerning what state courts administrator Dan Becker called the "exceptional need" for additional judges in the district that serves Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties.  

"It's been on our radar for the past three years," said Becker, who blamed tough economic times for the state's inability to address the problem in a permanent way. The need for a district judge and a juvenile court judge in the 8th District is "among the top two or three needs" statewide for Utah's court system, Becker said.

Judges from the state's 7th Judicial District — which serves Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties — have been covering cases in Duchesne County for nearly four years as the caseloads in the Uintah Basin have continued to grow. 

And while that help has been appreciated, Duchesne County Commissioner Kent Peatross said it's not a lasting solution.

"It's been kind of a Band-Aid to a situation that's been growing yearly," Peatross said. "We've just got a growing population and, unfortunately, … a growing court situation that we have to address sooner rather than later."

Duchesne County Attorney Stephen Foote said his office was staffed in 2002 by an elected county attorney and a deputy county attorney. It now employs four full-time attorneys, he said. The Uintah County Attorney's Office has seen similar growth, going from three attorneys in 1998 to seven attorneys.

"We're up about 151 percent in the past 10 years in terms of just our felony filings," Foote told the council. "We believe growth is imminent and is going to continue both here in Vernal, as well as in Duchesne County, and preparing for the future is what we need to do."

Statistics compiled by the state show a 30 percent increase in the number of district court cases filed in the 8th District between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2011. That increase — without a corresponding increase in the number of judges in the district — means that the two jurists on the bench would be handling an estimated 149 percent of the standard caseload in the current fiscal year, if it weren't for the assistance of the 7th District judges.

Even with that assistance, the 8th District judges are expected to carry 110 percent of the standard caseload this fiscal year, according to the state.

"We are experiencing the only major industrial growth in the state, and with that comes business to the court," said 8th District Presiding Judge Ed Peterson, referring to the resurgent oil and natural gas boom currently underway in the region.

The numbers aren't quite as dire in the district's juvenile court, where case filings are projected to rise by 15 percent over fiscal year 2011. But Juvenile Judge Larry Steele is the district's lone jurist in that court and his caseload is projected to climb to 192 percent of standard this year.

"The whole concept of functioning beyond the capacity that people say you can for an extended period of time is unrealistic," Peterson said. "I consider the 100 percent line right up there on red-line, and we've been past red-line for a great deal of time."

"We need help," he said.

The District Court Board and the Juvenile Court Board will present their prioritized lists of statewide needs to the entire Judicial Council at its August budget meeting. The council will then forward its prioritized list to Gov. Gary Herbert's office and the Legislature for consideration.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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