Looking into the future through a rear-view mirror is the traditional way the courts approach change.

Every day, judges base decisions and attorneys win or lose arguments based on "precedent." A 200-year-old document - the Constitution - drives the justice system.Visions of the future don't come naturally. The judiciary reacts to, instead of initiates, change.

But for the past year, Utah's judiciary has led other states by examining where the courts have arrived at - and where they are going.

The Justice Commission in the 21st Century has conducted public polls and held meetings with business, medical, social services, education, political and court leaders. Candid criticism of the courts was demanded. And now, the criticism has resulted in a long list of recommendations, says Roy Simmons, Justice Commission chair.

"We as citizens have an opportunity to influence the way the courts will change in the coming century," said Simmons, who is also the chairman of the Board of Zion's First National Bank.

"Public input will be considered seriously. From my involvement in this commission, I know that the judiciary is very sensitive to what the public thinks. It's rare for a commission, like this one, to show such responsiveness to public opinion."

When asked, citizens usually don't hesitate to express their frustrations with the justice system. The public hearing provides a forum for these concerns, said Simmons.

Jim Lee, vice chairman of the Justice Commission and senior manager of a major Salt Lake law firm, describes the recommendations as "substantive - potentially having a huge impact on the future of courts."

Juvenile courts could be phased out, becoming part of a one-level trial court. Justices of the peace, who are not trained in the law, could be given more power. Mediation, a less formal arena for resolving disputes outside the courtroom, could become mandatory in some civil cases. Clerks could offer advice on how to fill out a form for an undisputed divorce and dissolve a marriage without involving an attorney, said Lee.

Some recommendations are controversial. For instance, many attorneys don't want to place more responsibility on justices of the peace (or justice judges, as they are now called), said Lee. And many are divided in their feelings about mediation, fearing it may result in just another layer of court.

While the Justice Commission has made strides in decreasing courts for the general public, Lee is disappointed that more can't be done to reduce attorney fees. "The courts can't regulate fees, but the average Utahn still can't afford justice. Attorneys need to examine themselves and their high fees. It's an economic inequality that continues to threaten the future of the courts."

After receiving comments at the public hearing, the commission will re-evaluate its findings and publish final recommendations in September.


(Additional information)


A public hearing on the justice commission's preliminary recommendations is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 23, at the Law and Justice Center, 645 S. 200 East.


GRAPHIC: Future Courts\

Recommended changes for justice in 21st century:

-Establish a faster, simpler way to process uncontested divorces process. People could represent themselves without an attorney.

-Increase involvement of victims in prosecution and sentencing. Provide separate waiting areas for victims and witnesses in courtrooms.

-Adopt minimum time standards to speed up civil cases and measure judges' performance against these standards.

-Establish pilot programs to evaluate videotape and real-time computer-aided transcription as official court record.

-Remove medical malpractice from the courtroom into mandatory arbitration. Instead of a judge or jury, cases would be decided by a panel of trained arbitrators.

-Decriminalize minor traffic offenses, such as speeding, so that a jail sentence would not be imposed and a jury trial not held. Serious offenses, including DUI, remain criminal.