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Justice Courts: Surprisingly Light on Actual Justice?

05 October 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

You’ll probably walk through the doors of your local justice court at least once in your life.Screen Shot 2015 10 05 at 1.41.47 PM

Blog post by Delaney Woodfield, Fall 2015 Intern

Whether you receive a ticket for speeding or become involved in a small claims lawsuit, at some point a justice court judge might be in the position of deciding your foreseeable and financial future!

With great power should come great responsibility, but that is not always the case in Utah's justice courts

So many cases flow through Utah’s justice courts each day that it’s practically inevitable that our constitutional rights will often take a back seat to efficiency and profitability. And while justice courts are thought to deal with “low level” infractions, you could indeed find yourself facing a “high-level” punishment. A DUI arrest could lead to getting your driver’s license revoked…or even several days in jail.

Cities and counties establish justice courts – also, and perhaps more appropriately, called “municipal courts”– generally to handle traffic violations, class B and C misdemeanors, violations of ordinances, and small claim suits that occur within their regional jurisdiction. Justice courts are locally funded and determined by the boundaries of the administering government. City and county entities hire justice court judges.

Utah’s justice courts have been accused of being both unjust and unfair to those who end up in the system. Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, told KSL in 2011,Unfortunately, the ‘wild, wild West' is alive and well in justice courts.”

The courts operate with arguably no oversight beyond that of the very cities that subsidize them (or are subsidized by them, depending on your view).

Some cities treat justice courts as their own specialized money trees; they collect millions of dollars in fines and fees annually.  Individuals are often encouraged by the court to pay their outstanding fines rather than appearing in court. When someone does choose to show up to contest or negotiate charges, they may become subject to biased treatment that sometimes results in actual jail time.

Salt Lake County Jail records show that many people incarcerated there between 2004 and 2010 were jailed due to very trivial, non-violent crimes. Unable to afford the fines for such offenses as too-darkly-tinted windows and jaywalking, these folks are eventually arrested (on warrants for “non-compliance” with conditions of probation) and jailed until they can come before a judge to discuss payment.

County judges are initially appointed by a county commission and then stand for retention elections every six years. City judges are appointed by city officials for a term of six years. Although some court judges may be attorneys, many are not. These judges simply receive an annual diminutive training to maintain their qualifications. This manner of appointing judges has had its critics, who say that it could lead to an abuse of power.

In August, the ACLU of Utah launched “YES ON SIX,” an integrated advocacy campaign to reform Utah’s failing public defense system. “YES ON SIX” demands 2016 legislative action to establish significant state funding and oversight over county-led indigent defense systems, which also include justice courts.

Our state government is failing to preserve and uphold our Sixth Amendment right to be represented by legal counsel, regardless of wealth or socioeconomic status. Justice court reform must be part of the solution to Utah’s indigent defense woes, because even these “low-level” offenses can result in eventual loss of liberty.

With great power must come great responsibility. If justice courts have the power to put people behind bars – either at the time of sentencing or as an eventual repercussion for non-payment of fines – then justice courts also have a responsibility to respect the constitutional rights of the Utahns who face punishment there.