To listen to Judge Keith Stoney, you'd think the reason he suddenly announced his retirement from the bench last week isn't because the law was closing in on him for the way he lorded over his Saratoga Springs justice court; no, the reason he retired is because, golly gee, he was offered a sweetheart deal to retire by the government — just for fun! — and took it.
After saying that complaints filed against him had nothing to do with his retirement, he told the Salt Lake Tribune, "When the offer is too good to be true, you take it."
Well, he's right about that. The deal is too good to be true — it's much better than he deserved — but the complaints against him had everything to do with why he will step down at the end of the year and agreed never again to seek a judicial appointment.
Or is it just a coincidence that he suddenly quit three weeks before he faced a long-overdue hearing with the Judicial Conduct Commission?
And is it just a coincidence that he quit less than two months after 4th District Judge Claudia Laycock ruled Stoney had violated the constitutional rights of Elaine Damron after having her handcuffed for a day and then sentenced to 24 hours in jail for having her cellphone out in his court, and that his "error was egregious and its consequences were severe"?
There aren't many things scarier in this country than legal authorities who create their own laws and become drunk with their own power. Stoney apparently got away with it for decades, which tells you how broken the system is. In the end, the conduct commission offered Stoney the buddy pass. As attorney Greg Stewart put it, "Judge Stoney is retiring in exchange for the Judicial Conduct Commission dismissing all the complaints against him."
The commission let the judge off the hook, again — a judge so bad that he's the reason courts are now required to have recording devices, a judge so bad that there have been public protests on the streets against his abuses and entire websites devoted to his ouster, a judge so bad that Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, complained last year, "I am getting so many emails about Stoney I can't keep up with it."
When the Judicial Conduct Commission receives complaints about judges, it dispatches its staff to investigate and make recommendations back to the commission, which is composed of political appointees. In 2004 and again in 2007, the investigators recommended a public reprimand for a total of four complaints against Stoney. The commission rejected the recommendations. In 2011, the staff investigated and recommended public censure for two more complaints against Stoney. This time, the commission followed the recommendations, but Stoney took them to the Utah Supreme Court, where it has sat since. In the end, the commission struck the deal with Stoney, and both sides are bound to a confidentiality agreement, which means they can't talk about the case.
But others can. Damron's son, Ryan Peltekian, who says Stoney threatened him with jail and thousands of dollars in fines because his dog was loose, is furious at the commission.
"The JCC and Stoney are in cahoots," he says. "The JCC should be ashamed. This is a complete disregard for the rights of citizens. Every time we went to the state or the city or the Legislature, we were told to go to the JCC. Where are we supposed to go now? We went to the mayor (Mia Love), and she just stopped talking to us. The JCC is not there to see judges retire; it's to investigate complaints. Is there a law that says they can dismiss if the judge retires? Hundreds have been abused by this judge."
But the real problem is bigger than Stoney. The justice court system is seriously flawed. Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, calls justice courts "cash cows" with little oversight. "They can do what they want," he said last year when asked about Stoney. "There is no recourse, no record. You're a stranger in the court; everyone knows each other. It's them vs. you. They can get you for anything they feel like."
Stewart wishes aloud that Stoney would have faced the conduct commission hearing scheduled for Oct. 5, but he is happy that Damron's case ultimately forced the judge off the bench.
"(Stoney) thinks the complaints and the JCC had nothing to do with his retirement," Stewart says. "It's clear to me that things were piling up against him. He's coy about the number of complaints. The JCC had sent him a box of information about all the complaints they wanted to pursue at the hearing. That's what he was up against."
Stewart continued: "Anyone who sat in his courtroom knows how he treats people. Most criminal defense attorneys would tell you he's one of the least respected, ill-tempered judges out there, and they'd rather be in anyone's courtroom but his. He gets even worse when attorneys leave the room."
Finally, in a few months, no one will have to worry about Stoney again.