The reappointment this week of three judges who decide minor cases such as traffic violations was nothing more than a popularity contest among defense attorneys, according to Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom.
County commissioners voted Wednesday to reappoint Peggy Acomb, Joanne Rigby and Phyllis Scott to Justice Court. They took the action despite pleas from Yocom and from Commissioner-elect Randy Horiuchi, who said he wanted to decide on the three positions when he takes office next month.They also did it without accepting applications from others who are interested in the $48,000 per year jobs.
Justice Court judges decide minor offenses such as traffic violations and first-time drunk driving charges.
Outgoing Commissioners Bart Barker and Tom Shimizu brushed aside the criticisms. "That's so far from the truth. It's really hogwash," Shimizu said, referring to Yocom's characterization of the process.
Because of a change in state law, voters no longer decide who should preside over Justice Court. Lawmakers gave county commissioners that responsibility. In Salt Lake County, commissioners polled attorneys who have dealt with the judges and used the results to help determine whether to allow the judges to remain.
They decided not to reappoint a fourth judge, Dan Armstrong. Newly-elected commissioners will make that appointment in January.
Yocom characterized the poll as a popularity contest. He said defense attorneys naturally like judges who are lenient. While the poll included prosecutors as well, Yocom said his office assigns only five prosecutors to the justice courts.
"Just because attorneys think a judge is good doesn't mean a group of citizens would think it's a good choice," Yocom said.
Horiuchi said the commission's decision not to wait with the appointments was an example of why voters booted Barker and Shimizu out of office.
"Why set aside a fairness process?" he said, adding that the appointment is the most important one a commissioner makes. "I don't even know the three people. That's not the point. Fairness is the point."
Barker said the decision had nothing to do with politics. "We started this process before the election," he said. "This is not a last-second lame-duck shot.
"These judges are clearly qualified and efficient. Why not reappoint them? The only reason to delay the appointment would be to create an opportunity for a political appointment."
He said the commission did not reappoint Armstrong partly because a fifth judge, Richard Andrus, lives in the same district. The county earlier consolidated two districts. However, both judges will remain active until Dec. 31.