A Utah Supreme Court ruling effectively setting aside thousands of misdemeanor convictions has thrown the state court system into crisis.
"Court officials are trying to figure out what in the world to do," said Cheryl May, spokeswoman for the state administrative office of the court.In a sharply divided 3-2 decision, the high court has ruled that state court commissioners do not have the power to accept misdemeanor guilty pleas or impose sentences.
But the state's 12 court commissioners have accepted pleas and imposed sentences in thousands of cases since the 1992 Legislature empowered them to do so.
The court ruled the 1992 law giving the commissioners limited power to act as judges is unconstitutional.
The ruling appears to mean that people who entered guilty pleas to a crime before a commissioner or were sentenced by a commissioner can have their cases heard again by a circuit judge.
Court officials Monday morning were scrambling to come up with a procedure for handling the crisis. "There has been some intense telephone conversations back and forth," May said. "We hope to have some answers soon."
Court officials may temporarily empower court commissioners as pro-tem judges so they can continue to handle misdemeanor cases, said 3rd Circuit Presiding Judge Robin W. Reese.
May, too, discussed that option but said, "Under the current Supreme Court rules, you can only be a pro-tem judge for three days, so that may not help for long," she said.
Reese's staff is researching the legality of reappointing the commissioners as pro-tem judges every few days if necessary. But no one has hard answers.
"We're still analyzing the opinion, the rules and the constitution before we make a final decision," said Judge Robin Rees.
Dissenting justices Michael D. Zimmerman and Christine Durham predicted the judicial disarray. "Each and every misdemeanant who has ever been convicted by a jury and sentenced by a commissioner is entitled to a new trial in the circuit court."
The majority opinion was written by Justice Leonard Russon, Gov. Mike Leavitt's only appointee to the Utah Supreme Court.
Russon's personal view did not surprise court pundits. Russon made it clear in an earlier Court of Appeals ruling that he believed commissioners had been given too much power.
Even though commissioner power was not the focus of the case, Russon explained his feelings on the subject. But court officials were surprised that Russon was able to persuade Justices I. Daniel Stewart and Richard Howe to his point of view.
The high court has taken "a grave misstep," wrote Zimmerman and Durham.
In their scathing dissent, Zimmerman and Durham said the majority apparently believe that a judge's power is personal power, not institutional power bequeathed by law.
"The majority incorporates into the Utah Constitution the grandiose notion of the person of the judge as a `sacred vessel,' " the justices said in their dissent. "In so doing, the majority places severe restrictions on the ability of the judicial branch to manage litigation in Utah."
The Legislature may have to amend the state's constitution "to alleviate the mischief done," they concluded.