A far-reaching and badly-needed reorganization of the entire Utah court system has been proposed by the Utah Judicial Council and now goes to the Legislature where the details must be worked out. The changes would be uncomfortable for many and are sure to arouse opposition. Yet the concepts ought to be adopted.
Basically, the plan calls for merging circuit and district courts into a single trial court system, for altering the role of justice courts - the old justice of the peace system - and for defining minor criminal offenses in such a way that they can be better handled by justice courts.The overhaul would make the courts more efficient, reduce the growing need for more judges and more court facilities, provide more fexibility, save millions of dollars, and eliminate delays and confusion over jurisdictions.
The study was done at the behest of the 1990 Legislature in an effort to get control over heavy costs of the judicial system and the facilities needed to cope with expected rapid growth in the years ahead.
Among the recommendations, the Judicial Council seeks to:
- Take all traffic matters, including DUI cases, out of circuit courts and make them the exclusive responsibility of justice courts. This would end judge-shopping between circuit and justice courts, end confusion over jurisdictions, and be more efficient. Steps have been taken by the Legislature in recent years to improve the quality of justice courts and such courts already handle about half of all traffic and DUI cases.
- Eliminate the right of defendants to demand a trial by jury in the justice courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this can be done with minor offenses. This would save a great deal of court time and reduce the burden of citizens called for jury duty in minor matters.
- Adopt a simplified criminal offense classification to clarify what kind of cases could be handled by justice courts. A review of such criminal classifications already has been started by the Judicial Council.
- Transfer exclusive jurisdiction over small claims cases to the justice courts. This would provide a more informal and accessible forum for resolving minor disputes, transfer 45,000 cases to the justice courts, and remove a huge paperwork burden from court clerks.
- Consolidate all district and circuit courts statewide no sooner than 1996 and no later than 1998. A single system means that all judges could handle all cases as needed. For example, in the current double system, a district judge with a 120 percent caseload cannot send some of his cases to a circuit court judge who has only a 60 percent caseload. Another district judge has be appointed, resulting in three judges, each with a 60 percent caseload.
Money savings would be enormous with a single system. For example, one less judge and 15 fewer staff positions would be needed next year alone. Five additional judges would be needed in the next few years instead of the 25 now anticipated. Similar savings could be made in facilities. Fewer judges, fewer additional courtrooms and staff.
Utah cannot afford an antiquated judicial system that is cumbersome and expensive to operate. Let's have one that is efficient, fast and even fairer.