After everyone else had gone, Justice Richard C. Howe took one last look around the Supreme Court chambers in the State Capitol.

There was nothing left except a couple of old chairs, telephone cables snaking over the dingy, worn carpeting, and two unclaimed judicial robes in a closet.Standing in the same office where he worked as a young clerk just out of law school, Howe said, "The best part of my life has been spent in this building."

But Howe isn't looking back. He's looking out the window at the shiny dome of the new Scott M. Matheson Courthouse a mile down State Street, where he will become the chief justice on Wednesday.

A Matheson appointee to the bench, Howe was elected by his colleagues to succeed Chief Justice Michael D. Zimmerman. Elected to a second, four-year term in December, Zimmerman decided to give up the top job to spend more time with his family.

Howe admits he wanted the job and is honored to be chosen. "I thought it would be a nice thing to do to cap off my career," he said.

A career that began in the Supreme Court as a clerk to Chief Justice James H. Wolfe in 1949. Two years later, he moved from the court chambers on the east side of the Capitol to the legislative chambers on the west side, serving in the Utah House until 1958.

Following a 10-year-hiatus, during which he concentrated on his private law practice and leadership positions in the State Democratic Party, Howe was re-elected to the House in 1968. He was speaker during the 1971-72 legislative session and then served in the Senate from 1972 to 1978.

In 1980, Justice D. Frank Wilkins resigned from the Supreme Court to return to his law practice, and Matheson named Howe to the vacancy.

Two years as a law clerk, 18 years in the Legislature and 17 years on the bench: half of Howe's 74 years have been spent in the Capitol. Now, he says he's ready to move into the new building and new job.

"I'm not burned out," he said during an interview on his last day in the Capitol. "I find the work on the court invigorating. Every day I learn something. There is no boredom here."

And learning means listening, which judges sometimes forget to do, according to Howe.

"After you've been at this a long time, you think you know it all," Howe said. "So when a young lawyer comes in with some new argument you've never heard, there is a tendency to brush it off. Then you realize it's a good point. You have to be willing to listen, to give thought and consideration to what you've heard."

Despite his years on the political front lines and in the legislative spotlight, Howe is soft-spoken, reserved and courteous on and off the bench. He is most often described as a "gentleman lawyer" and a "traditionalist."

Though he will bring a different personality and style to the job of chief justice, he says he doesn't plan to stray much from the course the court has followed under Zimmerman. Like Zimmerman, Howe takes a "consumer advocate" view of the judiciary.

"Our whole purpose is to serve the public," Howe said. "To do that, we must make sure that the people who run the courts are competent and well-trained and have the resources they need to do the job."

Howe said the Legislature has been good to the judicial branch in that respect, providing adequate funding for court services and salaries that are high enough to attract good lawyers to the bench and keep them there.

"Judges are better compensated than they were in the past, though no judge will make as much as he or she would working for one of the big law firms," he said. "In the last five or six years, I don't know of any judge who has left the bench because of pay."

While saying that the caliber of judges in Utah has improved in recent years, Howe says he welcomes public scrutiny and criticism.

"People have a right to hold judges to a high standard," he said, "If it's a minor thing, such as a judge always showing up late for hearings, we can usually handle it administratively. If it's serious misconduct, the Judicial Conduct Commission will address it."

At the same time, however, he cautioned that some complaints have more to do with the adversarial nature of litigation than the judge.

"In every case, there is a winner and a loser. Lawyers understand the process, but for the private person, the perception may be that the process - or the judge - was unfair."

As chief justice, Howe will also be supervising the court's regulation of the Utah State Bar.

"I'm interested in seeing to it that lawyers have the same objective as the judiciary: serving the people," Howe said. "I understand that lawyers are in business to make money, but we have to be concerned about the increasing cost of legal services. A lot of low- and middle-income people can't afford even basic services."

Howe said more and more people are trying to handle their cases without the help of lawyers, which slows down the legal process and increases the courts' administrative costs. Utah is developing programs to help these "pro se" litigants as much as possible, he said.

From his new office, Howe will be presiding over the most technologically advanced courthouse in Utah, with video trial capabilities, computer-integrated courtrooms and court monitors in a high-tech press room. While TV news programs will likely have more access to court-generated videos, don't expect to see TV photographers at trials in Utah anytime soon.

News video cameras are currently allowed only in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and Howe says that's as far as it should go.

"We have allowed them at the appellate level because there are no jurors or witnesses," Howe said. "It's not everything the media would like, but I'm afraid if we give them any wider latitude, it robs people who go to court of their privacy and dignity. As we saw in the O.J. Simpson trial, there is some tendency to play to the camera, to the court of public opinion."

Howe said he and his colleagues on the bench don't always agree on legal or administrative issues, but "we work well together." Serving with him and Zimmerman are Justices I. Daniel Stewart, Christine M. Durham and Leonard H. Russon, all Matheson appointees (Russon at the district court level).

"We all come from different backgrounds and experiences that bring different views to the court," Howe said. "Dissent is healthy. It forces you to be critical of your own opinions and make a more careful analysis."