Justice Court Judge Dan Armstrong can't be blamed for feeling a little insecure these days.
Just last week he was presiding over his court when he noticed one man had been sitting there awhile. Armstrong asked the man to state his business."He said, `I'm just here to watch how you work because I'm going to be taking your job.' "
Armstrong is one of four Justice Court judges in Salt Lake County. He decides traffic citations and drunk-driving cases. Until recently, the judges were elected by popular vote, but the state Legislature changed all that. Now, county commissioners appoint them and the public gets to decide every four years whether to retain them.
In January, the County Commission appointed three of the judges who previously had been elected. The only one they didn't appoint was Armstrong. Instead, the commission solicited applications for his job.
Why? In a poll of attorneys who have dealt with justice court judges, Armstrong, who hears cases from Kearns, Magna and parts of Taylorsville-Bennion, scored dead last in popularity.
"I'm not intimidated by attorneys," Armstrong said. "If I got rated low, that's probably why. I can't make decisions from the bench based on whether I'll keep my job or not.
"I'm obviously not perfect. I've obviously made some enemies. But then, someone's always going to win and someone's always going to lose in court. Sometimes the most effective judges are the least popular."
The man in Armstrong's court that day turned out to be one of about 100 applicants for the job. County commissioners said they are far from deciding who to appoint to the position, which pays $48,000 per year.
That's not what Armstrong wants to hear. He's trying to support a family, including a son on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To him, the county's process of deciding his fate is agonizingly slow and frustrating.
First, the commission appointed a committee that narrowed the list of applicants earlier this year. Then, the commission decided to start over because not enough qualified people applied.
After collecting applications the second time, the committee discovered Armstrong's district boundaries had changed, so commissioners decided to wait a little longer and let the public know they could apply for the job if they lived in certain parts of Taylorsville-Bennion.
"There was a strong feeling among all of us that the pool of applicants we got the first time didn't meet our expectations," said Kevin Higgins, administrative assistant to Commission Chairman Jim Bradley.
"We would like to have someone with a background in making decisions. Someone with a combination of education and experience that would make them a good decisionmaker."
Meanwhile, Armstrong, a former teacher at Cyprus High School, said he doesn't know whether to begin looking for a new job. His name inadvertently was taken off a list of people available to perform weddings, and it also disappeared from the state court administrator's list of judges.
"I kind of feel like Rodney Dangerfield. I feel like I don't exist," he said.
The matter is complicated by the fact the commission has changed since the decision was made not to automatically appoint him. Voters tossed out the Republican-controlled commission in November and elected Democrats.
The Democrats objected to the way former commissioners used the popularity poll. But, as long as they had control over one position, they wanted to be as careful as possible.
"The whole process from the beginning has been rushed," Higgins said. "We stopped and said, do we really want to hire a justice this way?"
Because the public virtually always votes to retain judges, the appointment probably will be for life, he said. Commissioners also said Armstrong may end up being the one they appoint.
Armstrong believes the public should have some say. After all, he was elected in 1982 and again in 1986 over other candidates.
"I'm sure other people out there are qualified, but I've got the experience of having done this for eight years."