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THOUSANDS OF OLD CASES FACE REVIEW

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Court officials have decided to review thousands of divorces, child custody and misdemeanor cases handled by Utah court commissioners and - if they were handled properly - have them signed by district judges.

In a meeting Friday, three judges comprising the Judicial Council's management committee decided that the courts must take this prompt, drastic approach.The three judges have legal power to act on behalf of the council in an emergency, said Cheryll May, spokeswoman for the state court system.

The disarray in the court system created by a Utah Supreme Court ruling released this week constituted such an emergency, the judges decided.

People whose divorces were granted by court commissioners can call the court, have their divorces promptly reviewed and signed by a district judge, she said.

Those who don't call will likely have their domestic cases reviewed over the next several months. "This is not an overnight job, to say the least," May said. Court commissioners have been handling uncontested divorces since 1985 in some districts, she said. Clerks, who already have full days, must now find time to pull files on nine years' worth of divorces, she said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers weighed in with their opinion of the court ruling that sparked the crisis.

In a 3-2 decision, the court ruled that court commissioners do not have the constitutional authority to perform core judicial functions, such as accepting pleas or imposing sentences in misdemeanor cases.

The ruling struck down a 1990 law empowering the commissioners to handle some criminal and civil cases.

"Whether the Supreme Court is right or wrong, they didn't leave us with any way to solve the problem. They just kind of dumped this mess on us," said House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake.

"This is like when your car gets almost totaled: You have options and they're all horrendous."

Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said the ruling leaves questions unanswered and will undoubtedly prompt legislation this winter.

"Things need to settle down a little, and we need to come to it with calmness," he said.

Chief Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Zimmerman, 5th District Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Jackson and 2nd Circuit Judge Brent West made two other key decisions in their two-hour meeting Friday:

- Court commissioners will not be allowed to handle any cases alone as they have in the past. Instead, the commissioners will assist judges by reviewing cases and offering advisory opinions on how the judges ought to rule, May said.

"The staff will look at everything commissioners do and see what kinds of cases this advisory role can be used in. It doesn't work for misdemeanors, but it will probably work for divorces and mental- health cases."

Will it keep the state's 12 commissioners busy enough? "We'll have to see."

- State court staff will describe the full impact of the ruling for the Judicial Council during its three-day meeting at Snowbird later this month.

The staff will outline the ways the decision can best be implemented and estimate the cost and impact on staff, May said.

Friday's action doesn't give a reassuring answer to the question: "Am I really divorced?"

The apparent answer: Not exactly.

For example, someone who wants to make trouble in an old divorce or child custody case could probably use this crisis to do it.

If the divorce was granted by a commissioner, an ex-husband or wife could file a motion to have a rehearing in the case, May said.

A couple whose divorce was granted years ago by a judge can't do that.

If a judge discovers an irregularity in any case handled by a commissioner, the judge could schedule a hearing in the matter, May said.

Those who were divorced by judges don't have to worry about that possibility.

The three judges decided it was prudent to assume that the ruling will have a widespread, retroactive impact, May said.

If the Judicial Council were to decide that the ruling isn't retroactive or doesn't affect divorces, the high court could disagree in a ruling somewhere down the road and the state would be faced with the same chaos, she explained.

Lawmakers gave court commissioners greater judicial power in 1990 to ease crowding in Utah's courts. It was also a cheaper way for taxpayers to fund justice. Commissioners' salaries are only 70 percent of a district judge's salary.

Currently, district judges make $83,000, May said. Commissioners make $58,100.

"The Legislature has been so stingy on funding of appointed judges, I think we've kind of bought ourselves into this position of having less-qualified people make sentences," said Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Sandy. "It's a `you get what you pay for' syndrome."

Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, characterized it differently: The Legislature wanted the most efficient judiciary it could get for its buck.

Some lawmakers are talking about a constitutional amendment to grant court commissioners the power the Legislature thought it was giving them four years ago.

Valentine doesn't think one is likely. "I don't think we have the votes in the Senate and maybe even in the House to make a constitutional amendment," he said.

"The second problem is, unless we had a special session right away, there's insufficient time to get it to the voters this November. It would be two years until voters could consider it."