The mystique is slipping.

The aloofness is disappearing.And the black robe is being left inside chamber closets as judges step inside the halls of the Capitol wearing plain clothes, their "adviser" hats.

At the invitation of lawmakers and the urging of the Commission of Justice in the 21st century, judges are intentionally letting go of some of their guarded detachment, replacing it with a kinder, more approachable, yet more aggressive image. Instead of sitting behind their high benches and waiting for the lawmakers to come to them, they are taking a more pro-active role. They are meeting individually and in small groups with Utah lawmakers discussing laws needed to improve the justice system.

"Judge Wapner" is the image legislators told the Justice Commission they wanted projected by state judges.

Rep. Craig Moody, R-Sandy, has invited judges to talk more with lawmakers - formally and informally. The lack of communication is why lawmakers "balked" at the proposal in the past legislative session to build a centralized courthouse complex in downtown Salt Lake City, he said.

And in an earlier meeting between the late Gov. Scott Matheson and the Justice Commission, Matheson urged judges to "come out of the woodwork" and speak out on issues.

Judge Regnal Garff, Utah Court of Appeals, is a member of the Justice Commission that recently issued a report advocating:

"It is vitally important for judges to maintain a healthy distance from partisan bickering. But it is the duty of the members of the judicial branch to apply their training and experience to the political questions that relate to how effectively the judiciary can perform its duties."

A change in image requires a change in thinking, Garff said. Most judges shun the limelight, fiercely protecting their neutrality and independence.

"Those judges who have been on the bench longer are more reticent to come forward - it violates that old idea that in order to stay unbiased you have to remain isolated.

"Being pro-active is a reorientation for judges. But I think it is appropriate and necessary for judges to be more involved, more accessible and more visible. In order to create change that's needed, they need to be in a position to explain why those changes are needed."

Utah Court Administrator Bill Vickrey said lawmakers and judges are in the process of "educating each other."

"In the past, judges have been concerned about the Cannon of Ethics and did not want to appear as overbearing or as interfering. It's nice to have an open invitation to initiate more open communication," he said.

The judiciary's governing body, the Judicial Council, takes positions on bills directly related to the administration of justice but does not get involved in public policy - such as abortion, cable TV or taxing issues - because cases involving those issues may land in their courts, said Vickrey.

Some proposed legislation - such as the abortion task force proposal and death penalty standards - are submitted to the council for advisement. It makes suggestions for changes - but does not take an official position.

However, circuit court judges recently met with legislators to discuss the ramifications of changes in penalties for illegal possession or consumption of alcohol by minors. And in another meeting, judges expressed their concerns to lawmakers regarding problems that occur with child support and visitation laws.

"Judges must assume responsibility and more aggressive leadership. They must do their homework and be prepared to debate for changes that will result in a more healthy, vigorous and independent judiciary," said Vickrey.


(Additional information)

Judicial Issues for legislature

Utah judges will speak out on:

-Fine and surcharge consolidation.

-Financial planning for centralized courthouse complex in Salt Lake City.

-Court reorganization.

-Misdemeanor reclassification.

-Jury use and management.

-Court security and bailiff services. Judges will not take an official position on:

-Domestic violence emergency protection orders.

-Abortion task force proposal.

-Standards for imposition of the death penalty.

-Sentencing amendments for offenses against children.

-Definition of moral nuisance.

-Termination of parental rights.

-Victim notification of offender release.