Critics have long seen local justice courts as little more than cash machines for municipalities, but the Utah Judicial Council wants to create a new model that will function better and heighten public trust.
The council last week endorsed ideas put forth in a report from a Justice Court Study Committee, which examined the system.
The council plans to recommend changes listed in the report to the state Legislature. These include:
• Making justice court judges into state employees, rather than having them work for the county or city that chose them.
• Appointing the judges through a local selection committee.
• Making employment changes so all justice court judges work full time and have four-year college degrees.
• Requiring six-year terms and having municipal court judges stand for retention election.
The proposed changes, if adopted, would be phased in over time. Communities that do not like the system could opt to not run a justice court.
Critics have said justice court judges are interested mainly in filling the bank accounts of the cities or counties they serve by imposing fines on the class B and class C misdemeanors that come before them.
Ronald Nehring, a Utah Supreme Court justice who headed the committee, said the group wanted to avoid delving into criticisms of the municipal court system and instead explore what would be the best model.
"There are all kinds of pejorative remarks made about justice courts we chose not to dive into that. All of us thought there was a higher road we could take," Nehring said.
"We were trying to develop a justice court system with three principles in mind: judicial independence, fostering public trust and confidence, and preserving and promoting a local character."
Nehring said the discussions were thoughtful, there was disagreement about a number of issues and several significant compromises emerged. The recommendations that will go to the Legislature are not perfect, he said, but they are solid.
"I'm very pleased with the process and the amount of listening we did to interested parties," he said. "I think there's a very progressive proposal (that resulted)."
Among other things, the committee chose not to ask that all municipal court judges be attorneys.
"That was a compromise," Nehring said. "There are people who think they should all be lawyers. There are parts of this state that have justice courts that don't have many lawyers."I found a sense in the committee that there are communities in which wise men and women live who aren't lawyers, who people in the community trust, and those communities should not be foreclosed from having those people be judges."