SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant waxed nostalgic and cracked a few jokes in delivering the annual State of the Judiciary speech to the Utah Legislature on Monday.
The pending retirement of longtime state courts administrator Dan Becker had Durrant reflecting how the judicial system has changed over the past 20 years.
Only seven current state lawmakers were in office, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was just beginning his service, Durrant said.
"No, wait, he had just begun his third decade in the United States Senate. And I guess there goes my shot at that open U.S. Supreme Court appointment," the chief justice joked.
Durrant also noted that it was about 20 years ago that Michael Jordan pushed off to vault the Chicago Bulls to the NBA title over the Utah Jazz.
"I know there are some who argue that he did not push off, but after much consideration, I am now prepared to rule. He pushed off. And if you think I don’t have the power to decide that, you haven’t read the Utah Constitution," the chief justice said.
Technology has also changed over the past two decades, Durrant said, noting that people can now meet their future spouse online.
"Twenty years, ago you had to meet him or her at a church dance or in a bar. In my case, it was a bar — the salad bar at the BYU cafeteria," he said.
Courts have changed just as much as the broader culture, Durrant said.
In 1997, judges were just beginning to undertake nontraditional responsibilities, being asked to do work previously done by social service organizations or not at all.
Clerks began helping people fill out forms for domestic violence protective orders, the courts became responsible for the Office of the Guardian ad Litem, and judges were starting to look at a person’s underlying behavioral health problems, not just the charge that brought them to court.
Durrant said the dispassionate magistrate model of judging has in part been replaced by a model where trial court judges, in addition to calling balls and strikes — such as those in drug, mental health, and veterans courts — take on the role of coaches, encouraging success and supervising the delivery of support services.
Court system management is now driven by data-based decisions, accountability and transparency, with judges' performance posted online, he said.
Drug courts that were a pilot project in one district and in one juvenile court in 1997 are now in every judicial district for both adults and juveniles. Success in drug court led to mental health and veterans courts. Divorce education is now mandatory in all divorce cases where children are involved, Durrant said.
One overarching change the courts have made the past 20 years is that rather than being guided by tradition, judges have tried to see their responsibility in different ways, he said.
"Instead of being guided by tradition, anecdote or gut instinct, we are guided by research, data and evidence about what works," Durrant said. "We have earnestly sought to make all of our services and our administrative and judicial practices, including sentencing, evidence-based."
Like in 1997, lawmakers are again looking at juvenile justice reforms, Durrant said. But, he said, if the improvements can't be adequately funded this year, lawmakers should wait until next so the reforms can match the resources.
Durrant also made a plea for another 5th District Court judge for the rapidly growing southwestern corner of the state.