2014 Bills

Is There Justice in the Justice Courts?

Utah’s judicial system includes a variety of courts, including the so-called “justice court.” Unlike the other courts, these fall outside the judicial branch and are controlled and operated entirely by municipalities. They are tasked with handling “class B and C misdemeanors, violations of ordinances, small claims, and infractions committed within their territorial jurisdiction.” The judges are city employees, and need not be trained in the law to become a judge of the law.

In this past legislative session, Representative Jeremy Peterson sponsored a bill to reform this system. The concerns he expressed were articulated last fall in a blog post he wrote. For example:

These courts were intended to handle rather mundane cases. As such, they were designated as “not of record”. So what does that mean? It means that in the eyes of the other pillars of our legal system, these cases are ‘invisible’ to them.

This ‘Not of Record’ status held by Justice Courts also means that there is no appellate oversight of their work as there is in the District Courts courts. Disputed cases in District Courts are sent to the Appellate Courts. Disputes in the Appellate Courts are sent to the Supreme Court. Each court can overrule its subordinate court. But in Justice Courts, there is no appeal and no higher court. This is unfortunate because the judicial review and oversight that is present through the appeals process acts as a kind of quality control for the court system. Questionable verdicts solicit second opinions through an appeal. This secondary review acts as a check on the lower courts who may stray from standard and accepted sentencing practices or findings. Justice Courts, as they are constituted today, lack this appellate oversight. Thus, the volatile and inconsistent sentencing we see today across Justice Courts in Utah should not surprise us.

Inefficiency is just one of the many problems this system creates—cases in justice court are granted the right of “trial de novo” (trial anew) which allows a complete retrial in a district court rather than a more traditional appeal. This increases the cost to taxpayers by having to deal with one case twice.

Perhaps one of the more objectionable issues at the heart of the justice court system has been their role in boosting municipal budgets. As Representative Peterson explained:

Since Justice Courts are able to levy fines for infractions, that revenue goes to the coffers of the municipality that issued the citation. While some municipalities are very responsible in handling this privilege, others are not. Recently, I was made aware of a city in Utah that increased their budget by $1 million by counting on an increase in revenues of $1 million from their Justice Court. Since their population isn’t growing fast enough to justify that increase, are they expecting their population to become more criminal in nature or become worse drivers? In this case, the only way to meet the enlarged budget is to enlarge the number of citations issued. Baking new Justice Court revenue into the city budget cake is a recipe for injustice.

It’s a simple formula: conviction rates translates to revenue. This was highlighted by none other than the Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court in her 2008 State of the Judiciary address. Noting the “public perception that justice courts are vehicles for generating revenue,” Justice Durham stated:

[W]e want the public to perceive that their courts are fair and impartial. Without this perception, there cannot exist an essential element of our form of government—public trust and confidence in our judicial branch… There is, in my view, no more pressing problem of public perception regarding Utah’s court system than the justice courts.

She concluded her remarks to the legislature as follows: “I urge you to seize this opportunity to reform a system in need of attention and to enhance the public’s confidence in these courts.” That year’s legislative efforts led only to minor tweaking of the system, and even then was strongly lobbied against by the Utah League of Cities and Towns—a lobbying group representing Utah’s cities, which have a vested financial interest in the status quo. Here’s why: on an annual basis these courts are bringing in over $80 million in revenue to the jurisdictions that run them.

Most alarmingly, all of these fees are being imposed—and guilty verdicts rendered—upon Utahns by judges that are not trained in the law. (Parenthetically, these judges are also able to authorize forcible entry home invasions; as one official in the Attorney General’s office recently told me, “these judges wouldn’t know the Fourth Amendment if hit them over the head”—and yet they’re being allowed to sign off on such dangerous violations of liberty and property.)

For example (and entertainment?), here are snippets of some of the biographies of current justice court judges in Utah:

He worked in banking for eight years and the insurance industry for 10 years before becoming a dairy farmer for 17 years. He has driven a bus for 46 years, which he continues to do.

Judge Hall was a school teacher and coach in the Cache County School District for 31 years.

Judge Butcher served for four years in the Navy and 11 years in the Army as an Air Flight Combat Medic. He has also worked as a production controller for the Tooele Army Depot and as a juvenile probation officer for the Third District Juvenile Court.

He owned and operated a dairy farm until 2003. Since that time, he has served as the recreational director for Beaver City.

He has served as chief of police in Milford and as a deputy sheriff for Beaver County.

Her past work experience includes being licensed by the State of Utah as a Mortgage Loan Officer for over 25 years.

Representative Peterson’s bill to reform this system was dropped in favor of another that sought to create a task force to study this issue in greater depth, and return with recommendations for next year’s legislature. The bill passed the House 67-2 and passed the Senate 19-9. But prior to being signed into law by the Governor, the Senate recalled the bill and struck its enacting clause—fancy legislative language for killing the bill. Court reform was dead in Utah for at least another year.

The reason given was that the task force had not been funded, and therefore could not operate. The fiscal note, estimating the financial impact the proposal would have on state coffers, estimated expenditures totaling $28,000. What this means is that the potential reformation of the problematic justice court system was delayed due to the legislative leadership’s unwillingness to allocate $28,000 to this task force.

Last year there were over 524,000 cases tried in justice courts—almost one case for every five Utahns. It is problematic that a system of injustice such as this was left to continue untouched for at least one more year, all because of $28,000. While “leadership” decided to perpetuate injustice by subjecting hundreds of thousands of Utahns to a system run by non-law trained city employees—or, at a minimum, refuse to study the system for possible improvements—the following expenditures were cheerfully authorized:

$1,500,000 – Swanson Tactical Center
$1,000,000 – Sundance Film Festival
$300,000 – Marriage Commission
$250,000 (on top of $500,000 in annual funds) – Sports Commission
$250,000 – Heber Valley Railroad
$150,000 (on top of $150,000 in annual funds) – Museum of Natural History
$150,000 – Topaz Museum
$150,000 – Hill Air Show
$150,000 – Clark Planetarium
$100,000 – The Leonardo (museum)
$100,000 – Utah County Outdoor Sports Expo
$100,000 – Utah Symphony
$100,000 – Clear Horizons Academy
$60,000 – Art acquisition
$50,000 – Centerpointe Legacy Theater
$50,000 – Tuacahn
$50,000 – Summer Games
$50,000 – YMCA of Northern Utah
$50,000 – Deseret Star Theatre
$50,000 – Hale Center Theatre
$50,000 – Old Lyric Theater
$40,000 – Daughters of the Utah Pioneer Museum
$25,000 – Moab Music Festival
$25,000 – Symphony in the Park

While the legislature is throwing cash at these and other projects that aren’t actually necessary to the core purpose of government, it argues that it can’t scrounge up a relative pittance for the pursuit of actual justice. Hopefully the cause of true justice will find more supporters in next year’s legislative session, allowing the opportunity to study (if not implement) much-needed reform of Utah’s court system.