Because Utah's court system has earned a national reputation for expediency, fairness and an absence of the cronyism and politics that plague other states, businesses invest in the state's economy, says Utah's newest appellate judge.
"Delay is one of the most costly things to confront business litigants. Any delay adds tremendous cost to a legal dispute among businesses. In Utah, a case can be scheduled for trial within 60 days. The delay in places like California of five years or more is unconscionable and can destroy a company."Utah's strong, independent judiciary contributes to the state's economic stability," contends Judge Leonard
H. Russon, Utah Court of Appeals.
The relentless workload of the appellate court leaves no time for a gentle breaking in. Russon spent his first week on the job reviewing piles of briefs, keeping up with the court's fierce pace.
Polls conducted by Dan Jones for the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century show that attorneys have confidence in the Court of Appeals.
Before his appointment to the district court bench in 1984, Russon worked 21 years as a corporate trial lawyer. During his six years on the trial bench, Russon has seen increasing numbers of complex business cases being filed in 3rd District Court rather than in federal court. He believes the increase in the business caseload indicates the faith the business community places in the consistency, efficiency and fairness of the trial court.
"The Utah court system is a miracle. There's a great myth among those who have not actually spent time in court that there is delay. In Utah, we should stick out our chests with pride because of the lack of delay. In fact, the National Center for State Courts has studied Utah and uses us as an example of efficiency for the nation," said Russon.
Unfortunately, horrendous delays - such as in the Ogden Hi-Fi Shop case where convicted killer Pierre Dale Selby was executed 13 years after torture-killings of three people - give the entire Utah court system a "black eye," said Russon. Selby's cohort, William A. Andrews, also sentenced to die, awaits execution as the appellate process drags on.
Russon urges streamlining the federal appellate system in capital murder cases. "This is an area of delay that the federal system must solve. For a case to go up and down from one court to another for 20 years isn't the answer. The process could be streamlined without hurting constitutional rights. The state courts really can't do anything to cut down that delay except support federal changes," he said.
A judge is scrutinized more harshly than any other public official, asserts Russon. "Every single thing a judge does is done in the open. If you swear, it's there. Lawyers on both sides of a case watch what you do and the press publicizes what you say. You're living in a fishbowl."
The process of being appointed to the bench is rigorous. If a candidate passes the questioning of a bipartisan nominating commission, he or she is interviewed by the governor. Finally, the governor's choice must be approved by the Utah Senate. After confirmation, a judge must face retention vote every six years and evaluations by attorneys every two years.
"Being a judge is difficult because you're dealing with people who have reached the last resort in solving their problems - whether it's who receives custody of the children or keeps the home. Emotions are vitally involved; crucial issues are at stake. Sitting in judgment day after day is sobering.
"Every time I make a decision, someone loses. But it's like Solomon of old: You try to make a just and right decision within the law. It's satisfying when you feel you've made the right decision - even though it may hurt someone."
Although the job requires making godlike decisions - judgments that have power to deny freedom, property and even life - Russon enjoys the challenge. His attitude reflects that of 75 other judges who were interviewed by Dan Jones as part of the Doing Utah Justice project. All judges said there were satisfied with their overall experience on the bench.
While he fears he may miss the "action" of the trial bench - cases ranging from complex corporate fraud to homicide - Russon says he was attracted to the appellate court because of the court's fine reputation.
"An appellate judge decides whether trial judges committed error or not. Hopefully, my insight from years on the trial bench will enhance the court."