Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham knows how you feel about the courts.
"Feelings are facts," she said in her annual State of the Judiciary address to the Utah State Legislature on Monday. "We are constantly focused on the perceptions we want the public to have of their courts and try to work on those goals in specific ways."
But when it comes to public confidence, the chief justice seemed to acknowledge that there was trouble, particularly with justice courts.
"There is, in my view, no more pressing problem of public perception regarding Utah's court system than the justice courts," she said solemnly.
There are more justice courts springing up, and they are handling an increasing caseload, including DUI and domestic violence cases. Last year, Utah's justice courts generated more than $72 million in revenue. In 2008, they are expected to make at least $84 million. There is a growing public perception that justice courts are revenue generators, "never a proper function for courts as institutions," Durham said.
Durham supports a justice court reform bill being proposed by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. It would make justice court judges state paid and have them appointed and retained like state court judges, yet leave some control to local entities.
"In our municipalities and our counties, there is no independent judicial branch of government," Justice Ronald Nehring told the Deseret Morning News. "That impairs its ability to be independent."
The justices acknowledged they will have to persuade some lawmakers otherwise. After her address, one lawmaker was seen approaching Durham after her address to tell her how much he disagreed.
While officially remaining neutral, Durham said she did not believe it was necessary for a bill being proposed by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, that would change how judicial performance reviews are conducted.
Durham told lawmakers the state courts are making progress in public accessibility. The state courts Web site generated more than 8,000 legal documents for people last year. A new system is in place where people can retain a lawyer for one hearing only saving them a lot of money when hiring someone who often charges hundreds of dollars an hour.
"We have begun the use of electronic warrants, which will permit judges to review and act on law enforcement warrant requests instantly from any location at any time," Durham said. "We are also currently completing a process that will extend electronic filing to all civil cases before the end of your session here this year."
Durham ended her speech to lawmakers with a plea for money to keep deputy court clerks happy.
"Our deputy court clerks are our front-line employees," she said, describing the numerous jobs they do including helping customers at the front desks, assisting attorneys, tracking cases, collecting fines, managing jury pools and coordinating with everyone in a case.
When you make about $11 an hour to start, job turnover is high and recruiting is hard. The chief justice said deputy court clerks are among the lowest paid in state government."Fully 41 percent of new deputy court clerks leave the state courts before reaching one year of service," she said. "Ironically, a large number of them leave to take higher paying jobs with local justice courts at the city and county level."
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