Quiet but revolutionary changes in the Utah judicial system are bringing the state's courts out of the Robin Hood era, said State Court Administrator William C. Vickrey Tuesday.
Ongoing work to update Utah's judicial system is designed to speed proceedings, align administrative procedures that currently vary from county to county and increase the accountability of judges without compromising the independence of individual fact finders, Vickrey said at a Rotary Club luncheon in Salt Lake City.The perception exists that the courts operate in a "black box" and that a shroud of mystery surrounds judges and legal proceedings, Vickrey said. While criminal cases get 99 percent of the public attention, civil cases have the greatest financial impact on the state's population and domestic cases have the greatest impact on personal lives.
Utah has a Judicial Council that has played a key role in recent judicial changes and pending changes. The result is that Utah now sets the pace for judicial reform in the West, Vickrey said.
Two interrelated changes include the deletion of Utahns' right to appeal all cases to the Utah Supreme Court and the establishment in March 1987 of the Utah Court of Appeals, which is now hearing many of the cases previously on the Supreme Court's calendar.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, is now the court of first jurisdiction for certain capital cases and election disputes and will still hear certain "difficult" cases.
In addition, circuit, district and juvenile court districts have been realigned, with uniform administrative rules being established for each of these three facets of the state court system.
Because of recent changes, most trials are taking place six months ahead of the 1982 schedule - the majority within 90 days of arraignment. In a similar court in California, Vickrey said, trial dates are frequently set 18 months from the time they are first put on the calendar.
Pretrial jail populations have also decreased by half because of the changes, he said.
Other innovations like video arraignments, which allow prisoners to appear before a judge via video camera without leaving jail, cut down on prisoner transportation costs and risks.
The Judicial Council is also evaluating the juvenile court system in light of forecasts that indicate one in three children in Utah will appear before a juvenile court judge before their 18th birthday. Of all crimes, 35 to 40 percent involve juvenile arrests, Vickrey said.
Municipal justice courts are being evaluated with the goal of strengthening the education requirements of the non-attorney judges so they better respond to local needs. The justice courts provide a major revenue source for municipalities that have them, Vickrey said, but they are also paid for by the municipality.