SALT LAKE CITY — Many new judges, administrative turnover and criminal, civil and juvenile justice reforms have significantly changed the state's court system the past few years, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant told lawmakers Monday.
Durrant noted that 77 judges have taken the bench, and all four of his colleagues on the state's high court have joined him within the past eight years, including newly appointed Justice Paige Petersen. Petersen replaced longtime Justice Christine Durham, who recently retired.
As part of his State of the Judiciary speech at the Utah Legislature, Durrant said a few words about Durham's legacy.
"Much has been said of all she has done for women — the trails she has blazed, the doors she has opened and the inspiration she has provided," he said. "But as important as her contributions have been in this regard, that only tells part of the story. She has inspired just as many men as she has women, and, in my view, she has done more for our state’s judiciary than any other person who has served in it."
Durham also was a "brilliant jurist" who has nationally recognized for her work, Durrant said in a brief interview after his speech.
The chief justice said he doesn't want to put too much pressure on Petersen, but she has a daunting legacy to live up to.
"I have to say, though, that if anyone is up to that task, it is Paige Petersen. In her very short tenure on our court, she has already shown herself to have a brilliant and incisive legal mind," he said.
Durrant said the judicial branch's specific role to administer is not one for which it has an exclusive right. It's a shared responsibility with the legislative branch, he said.
"You, the Legislature, discharge this responsibility by creating just and fair laws. The executive branch does so by faithfully enforcing the law. And we, the judiciary, do it by fairly and impartially interpreting the law," Durrant said.
The court system cares about what lawmakers do and focuses on every word they choose in the legislation they pass, he said.
"It is often remarkable just how much difference a particular word choice can make," Durrant said. "It is our responsibility to carefully determine what those words mean, and we take that responsibility very seriously."
The chief justice highlighted the branches' "different but complementary roles" to reform the criminal and juvenile justice systems, as well as improve civil courts the past several years. He singled out efforts to address homelessness and crime in downtown Salt Lake City.
The Legislature, Salt Lake County, state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, and Utah Department of Health worked together to form a new drug court. It has 125 slots and already 95 participants.
Durrant said the court appreciates the money devoted to treatment and that it has made a "real difference." He encouraged the state's effort to get more funds through some form of Medicaid expansion.1 comment on this story
"There is simply no better investment that can be made to improve public safety than an investment in treatment," he said.
Although those dollars don't go directly to the courts, it allows judges to include a treatment component in sentencing.
"You see some highly incentivized individuals in that setting," Durrant said after his speech.
Crime is closely tied to substance abuse, and unless that can be fixed, prison becomes a revolving door, he said.
"I'm always pushing for every last treatment dollar that the Legislature can either access through Medicaid or appropriate for treatment," Durrant said.