A recent Utah Supreme Court ruling slashing court commissioners' power might affect thousands of divorces granted by commissioners in the past 10 years.
While court officials think that isn't likely, they can't ignore Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman's opinion that the ruling whittles commissioners' authority to handle civil cases as well as criminal."It makes me feel like I'm in a soap opera and someone just returned from the dead," said Sharon Haddock. She and her husband, Marc, were each married previously. Each was granted a divorce by 4th District Court Commissioner Howard Maetani.
But the Utah Supreme Court ruled this week that court commissioners do not have constitutional authority to perform "core judicial functions," including accepting misdemeanor guilty pleas and passing sentences.
The questions: Is granting a divorce or deciding a child custody issue a "core judicial function?"
Is the ruling retroactive?
If the answer to both is yes, what does that mean to the thousands of Utahns who now wonder if their divorces are valid?
Frankly, court officials don't know. They hope to have some answer for the public by Monday, said Colin Winchester, general counsel to the state court administrator.
The Haddocks have been married to each other five years. Between them, they have 12 children.
"We're wondering if this throws out the divorce decrees. Do we have to go back and rewrite everything? It was no fun the first time. I really don't want to do it again," Sharon Haddock said.
"If this really affects divorces, there are probably a lot of us out there living in sin now," laughed Howard Chuntz, a Utah County divorce attorney.
He has scores of clients whose divorces were granted by court commissioners. "I think at least 90 percent of the divorces I have had finalized have been finalized by commissioners."
Including his own.
"This could mean I'm not divorced. And so I'm not married either. That would be interesting."
Others are equally interested. "We're getting a lot of calls from people asking, `Am I divorced?' " said 2nd District Judge Stanton M. Taylor.
Zimmerman and Justice Christine Durham raised the question when they wrote in their dissent, "Although the majority specifically declines to address the potential impact of their opinion on civil adjudications by court commissioners, there is no principled way to limit the majority's reasoning to criminal cases."
The majority ruled that only judges - not commissioners - can "legitimately exercise judicial power in Utah," Zimmerman wrote. "Because the judicial power encompasses both civil and criminal adjudications and because the constitution does not differentiate between the two, today's decision necessarily applies in both contexts."
The only civil cases comissioners handle are divorces and child custody issues, said Cheryl May, spokeswoman for the state court adminitrative offices.
In many cases, commissioners grant the divorces, but the decree is later signed by a judge. Those divorces are more likely to be sound than divorces signed only by the commissioner, May said.
Court officials researching the 40-page ruling currently don't believe it will affect divorces and custody cases.
"I think Justice Zimmerman is wrong. But I could be wrong," Winchester said. "He gets to make the rules. I don't."
Staff attorneys in the state administrative office have been spending each day this week poring over the ruling, trying to figure out what it means.
That isn't easy. Justices Leonard Russon, I. Daniel Stewart and Richard Howe have been criticized for issuing a ruling that raises more questions than it answers.
The staff will meet Friday with the management committee of the Judicial Council, the court's governing body, to draft a formal position on the ruling. That position will be issued to the public Monday, Winchester said.
Until then, thousands of husbands and wives here are having some lively marital chats.
"When I realized last night that this ruling could affect divorces, I called Marc and said, `Guess what? You are still married to Nancy. I'm still married to Bob. And we aren't married to each other,' " Haddock said.
They both laughed. But it was uneasy laughter.