2016 Bills

HB 160: Ensuring Justice Court Judges Are Trained In The Law

This bill passed the House 44-28 and passed the Senate 24-4.

Libertas Institute supports this bill.

Most people who interact with the legal system do so through one of the state’s many justice courts. However, justice courts are not considered “courts of record” and are controlled and operated by municipalities. Interestingly, the judges for these courts are not currently required to be lawyers. The legislature has previously attempted to reform these courts in a common sense way, but leadership defunded the bill late in the session and, as a result, the reform proposal died.

Representative Craig Hall has sponsored House Bill 160 to focus on the qualifications for the judges who preside over these courts. The bill would require judges appointed in counties of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class (with a population of over 31,000) to be trained in the law as evidenced by graduation from law school.

This bill was a companion bill to House Joint Resolution 1 which was a proposal to amend Utah’s Constitution. However, Representative Hall has agreed to abandon this effort and focus instead on this more narrow statutory change. Utah’s Constitution currently states that “no qualification may be imposed which requires judges of courts not of record to be admitted to practice law.” This bill would not make any changes to that requirement.

While we generally oppose state-imposed barriers to entry for occupations, including unnecessary government licenses, we don’t presume that practitioners of occupations don’t need special education or qualifications at all. On the contrary, such education and qualifications can help a practitioner stand out in a free and competitive marketplace where consumers can choose more qualified individuals over less qualified ones if they desire. However, when it comes to the individual hired by the government to determine whether you may go to jail or not, there is no free market. You don’t get to choose one judge over another. You are stuck with the judge the government chooses, no matter their qualifications. This bill would ensure that such judges have at least a basic legal education before sitting on the bench.

Under the Sixth Amendment to the United State Constitution, criminal defendants are entitled to legal counsel. However, in many cases defendants may not qualify for a court-appointed attorney and often represent themselves in justice court actions. In these cases, the government typically has a legally trained professional prosecutor. It is possible in such cases that, without a legally trained judge, the prosecutor would be the only law trained individual in the court. This places the defendant, whose liberty is on the line, at a significant disadvantage against the government.