Rep. Craig Hall: Time for justice court judges to be “licensed to practice law”

With a recent report on Utah’s judicial system finding that many defendants appear before judges inadequately represented–if at all–perhaps it’s time that we take another look at another problematic area of Utah’s judicial branch: the courts not of record, or “justice courts.”

Rep. Craig Hall: Time for justice court judges to be "licensed to practice law"
Rep. Craig Hall (R-HD 33) wants Utah justice court judges to be licensed to practice law.

Rep Craig Hall (HD 33) wants justice court judges to be licensed to practice law in Utah.

Having fair, effective, and knowledgeable judges are a crucial part of just and equitable judicial system. Where other courts issues decisions and rulings of law and fact, keep a record to allow for appeal and evidentiary matters, and are subject to judicial review, justice courts stand as an anomaly, relics of a previous age.

Staffed by individuals “hired” by cities and counties, rather than answering to the Utah Supreme Court as state courts, justice courts are an area ripe for reform. One issue unknown to many is that Utah does not require justice court judges to be licensed attorneys.  Of the one hundred and eight justices hired for the purpose, a large number do not have a law degree, nor are they required to have any qualification tied to the law (see below for a sampling of the careers that current judges of courts not of record have had before hiring).

While non-attorney judges may do a good job, confidence that the job they are doing is in compliance with the highest standards of legal practice–to allow those before them to trust the correctness of the decision and the judge’s qualifications–would require that they have the same training and experience as their counterparts on the bench. In other words, that they be lawyers licensed to the practice of law in Utah.

Right now, the judges of Utah’s justice courts includes ranchers, former choral directors, vets, school teachers, a number of corrections officers, a football coach, and the former head secretary for several California law firms.

Since 1985, the Utah constitution has stated that criteria for justice court judges cannot include admission to the practice of law. Representative Craig Hall thinks that the law should be updated. He’s opened a bill file to require that all justice courts be attorneys licensed by the state bar.

“The time has come for all judges in Utah to be law-trained and licensed to practice law,” Hall said.  “Justice court judges make decisions every day regarding important constitutional issues, including possible incarceration.  Requiring judges to have a law license will not only increase the likelihood that judges get their rulings right, but will increase confidence in our justice court system.”

Since it would be a change to the Utah Constitution, if his bill passes in 2016 Legislative Session, it will head to the ballot in 2016 for a vote by the public.

Below are few of the backgrounds from the biographies of judges in the justice courts–none of the listed have a law degree. The list is not exhaustive:

  • Department of Corrections.
  • Law enforcement.
  • High school choral director.
  • Former court clerk.
  • Dairy farmer, ranchers.
  • Football coach.
  • Law firm secretary.
  • Mortgage loan officer.

In addition, these individuals are required to “receive extensive and continuing legal training” and to annually “attend 30 hours of continuing judicial education each year to remain certified.”

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