The Evolution of Utah’s Justice Courts
Paul C. Farr, Judge.
Having sat through a civil procedure course in law school, a student could come to the conclusion that all great and important things that take place in the world of law happen in a federal district court and must have something to do with minimum contacts and international shoes. During three years of law school, I do not believe I ever heard the term, “justice court.” (That’s okay, I do not remember actually reading the Rules of Civil Procedure either.) It was sometime after graduation while in practice that I discovered there was a place called a justice court. While in practice over the ensuing twelve years, I do not recall ever analyzing minimum contacts in a federal court case. I did on several occasions, however, find myself defending clients charged with misdemeanors and helping with small claims cases. I do not expect that my experience is unusual.
In 2010 I was appointed to serve as a part-time justice court judge while still maintaining a civil law practice. In justice court I discovered a world of people that were interacting with the court system. They were not appearing in the federal district court or the state district courts. They were appearing in front of me and my colleagues at a local justice court. And there were a lot of them.
courts in Utah received a total of 459,622 new case filings
in FY 2015. During the same time period, the district courts
received a total of 269,143 case filings. The justice courts
also handled the majority of criminal cases in the state with
72,832 criminal case filings compared to 39,639 in the
district courts. Utah Administrative Office of the Courts,
Court Statistics. https://www.utcourts.gov/stats/files/2015FY
(last visited March 29, 2016). These numbers, showing that
limited jurisdiction courts are handling more cases than
their general jurisdiction counterparts, are consistent with
other states around the country.
These courts provide a very important service and have a large impact on the communities that they serve. The quality of these courts should be very important to all parties involved in the courts and the criminal justice system. The purpose of this article is to document some of the steps in the evolution of these courts, beginning with some recent changes that took place in the 2016 legislative session. The history of these courts is also addressed, followed by some ideas for potential future reforms that have been raised.
In the 2016 General Session, the legislature passed H.B. 160. At the heart of this bill is a requirement that justice court judges in courts operating in first and second class counties (which includes the five most populated counties of the state: Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, and Washington) be law school graduates. The bill stopped short of requiring that judges be admitted to the practice of law, as such a change would have required a constitutional amendment.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Utah had a total population of 2,763,885. The five most populated counties have a combined population of 2,222,049. Utah: 2010, Population and Housing Unit Counts, 2010 Census of Population and Housing. See https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/cph-2-46.pdf. That means in the future approximately 80% of the state’s population will be served by justice court judges with law degrees. Further, as stated above, in FY 2015 the state’s justice courts received a total of 459,622 new case filings. These same five counties received 338,342 of those filings. Going forward, approximately 74% of justice court cases will be presided over by a judge with a law degree. Utah Administrative Office of the Courts, Court Statistics. See https://www.utcourts.gov/stats/files/2015FY.
The twenty-four other less-populated counties are excluded from this requirement. The bill also contains an exception in the larger counties if fewer than three law school graduates apply for a judicial vacancy. The exclusion of small counties is for practical reasons. Most courts in those counties are relatively small and handle fewer cases, requiring the services of only a part-time judge. A part-time justice court judge that is a member of the bar may still practice law but may not practice criminal law, represent clients that regularly appear in small claims...