Utah has been innovative and flexible in changing its court system to meet growing needs. As a result, the state is not plagued with case backlogs that clog courts in many other states. But as Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon R. Hall pointed out this week in a State of the Judiciary address before the Legislature, more changes must be made.

Because of rapid population growth, studies indicate Utah will need 26 new judges, scores of support personnel and additional court facilities by 1996 to keep up with expected increases in cases. That represents a significant expense. Hall said the only alternative is to have a court system with more built-in flexibility.One measure to accomplish that is before the 1991 Legislature. It calls for merging circuit and district courts into a single trial court system and altering the role of justice courts - the former justice of the peace system.

Consolidating the courts would allow judges to be assigned as needed. At present, judges cannot be assigned from circuit to districts courts or vice versa, even though one may have an excessive workload and another have less than a full caseload. A single system would make best use of every judge and allow the courts to absorb greater caseloads within existing facilities and personnel.

According to a Utah Judicial Council study, this would eliminate the need for one extra judge and 15 more staff positions next year alone and would reduce the 26 needed judges in 1996 to only five more judges.

The savings would be significant.

In addition, the justice courts would be empowered to take over all DUI cases, making the system more efficient and ending confusion over jurisdictions. About half of all DUI cases already are handled in justice courts. Small claims cases would also be sent to justice courts, providing a more informal and accessible forum for resolving minor disputes.

This seems workable since the Legislature has taken steps in recent years to improve the quality of all justice courts. Other alterations involving a simplified criminal classification system and restrictions on jury trials for minor matters also have been suggested. These would help streamline court operations as well.

As Hall emphasized, it is crucial that lawmakers adopt the consolidation proposal. Delay will only cost the state considerable money. Utah should have the best, most efficient, most cost-effective court system it can get. And that means willingness to change the system as needed.