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UTAH JUSTICES MAY EXTEND COMMISSIONERS' POWERS

Utah Supreme Court justices may well extend pro tem powers of court commissioners for up to a year and may well recommend that legislators replace most of the 12 commissioners with regular judges.

Ron Gibson, state court administrator, said the Judicial Council has no final recommendations on how to solve the problem of court commissioners - created when the Supreme Court ruled last month that commissioners couldn't issue final orders or decisions in misdemeanor cases. However, Gibson told a legislative committee Wednesday that he guesses that judges will recommend most of the commissioners be permanently replaced by regular judges.In 1991 lawmakers agreed to allow the judiciary to hire court commissioners, and later the Judicial Council gave the commissioners various powers - they hear many divorce cases, issuing final divorce decrees, and three commissioners hear misdemeanor traffic cases.

The high court ruled in a split decision that commissioners can't hear misdemeanor cases. The ruling threw the state court system into a tailspin for a week or so until the high court also made commissioners judges pro tem for six months and - after thousands of divorced Utahns flooded the courts with calls asking if they were really still divorced or not - issued an amended ruling saying past commissioner decrees were binding.

Now, says Gibson, justices are willing to extend the pro tem status for another six months, if that is needed. But ultimately, lawmakers will have to solve the problem, he said.

The Interim Judiciary Committee is considering what to do about commissioners no longer having the powers created in 1991.

In the cases of most of the commissioners, "it doesn't cost that much more" to just create a new judgeship and hire a judge - the support staff for a commissioner and a judge are the same and are already in place, said Gibson. It would cost an extra $11,500 a year to have a judge sit instead of a commissioner. Only the Legislature can create a judgeship.

"We in the Senate are very concerned about just hiring more commissioners and giving them pro tem powers," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. Judges go through the judicial nominating process, are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Commissioners are just hired by the Judicial Council. "In effect, we have judges hiring judges, and that is not a good policy," said Hillyard.