The North Carolina man hired to run Utah's courts says his own hiring disproves what people in the East told him about Utah: You have to be from Utah to succeed in Utah.
Daniel Becker is the first state court administrator hired from outside the state in the nearly 20 years since the post was created in the '70s.When Becker considered moving here, people were quick to tell him that Utah was a "closed and close-knit" state, he said. "They said, `Unless you are from here, it's hard to establish a foothold and be accepted.' "
But the Utah Supreme Court passed over four well-known Utahns in favor of Becker. "I think I'm a walking example that that perception is not necessarily reality," he said.
Becker's presence will be the first infusion of out-of-state leadership the system has had in decades. All of the deputy administrators and most of their staff are Utahns, said court spokeswoman Cheryl May. "This really is a Utah outfit."
Early in the administrator search, Chief Justice Michael D. Zimmerman said the Supreme Court was looking for someone experienced in managing hundreds of people. The court passed over four attorneys to get Becker. He doesn't have a law degree, obtaining a master's in public administration instead, but he has the management experience the court wanted.
The court selected Becker largely because of his management experience with a large system, said Justice Christine Durham. "We believe he can hit the ground running with respect to the issues we are dealing with in our system."
Court insiders say Becker's hiring may also provide a political compromise between two popular finalists: State District Court Administrator Mark Jones, a well-known Republican, and former Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis, one of the state's most high-profile Democrats. Unlike Jones and DePaulis, Becker brings a clean political slate.
Becker is winding up his work as the deputy state administrator of North Carolina's 5,000-employee court system. "Where you think in terms of hundreds of thousands of cases, we think in terms of millions of cases," he said. Unlike Utah's system, the North Carolina court administrator's office also managed all prosecutors and defense attorneys in the state.
Becker describes himself as a thoughtful man who places a high priority on making people feel included in management and change. "I would expect that what I accomplish is by virtue of what the people in the courts accomplish," he said."Mr. Becker comes to us with a reputation for having excellent people skills," Durham said. The court was adamant about such skills in its new administrator. Becker said he was clearly told in his interviews that the court wanted someone who could work well with judges and lawmakers in particular. Durham concurred.
"We were impressed with his ability to express himself and to accommodate new situations and unfamiliar demands. We think he is very skilled at working well with people - we hope!" she laughed.
The Administrative Office of the Courts has had a rocky relationship with both groups at times during the past few years. The court system was largely ignored by lawmakers during legislative sessions in the early '90s and judges in at least two districts quarreled over the recent consolidation of the circuit and district courts.
Becker says his approach to change is similar to Utah's: slow but firm. "Utah is innovative without being fickle," he said. For example, alternative dispute re-so-lu-tion is a hot legal trend in the country right now. But instead of rushing in and establishing a statewide program, Utah is first testing it in two districts, he said.
"That's very impressive. Often people jump into whatever new is coming down the pike. It's a good idea to be careful and deliberate. I think you can have vision, but I also think you can be careful and deliberate in seeing that vision through."
His goals for the first year: "To learn and to listen. I don't want to come in with a lot of preconceived notions." He is eager to work smoothly with Zimmerman and the Judicial Council, making their priorities his own. If he errs in understanding people, he prefers to err on the side of compassion, he said.
But despite his gentle, consensus-building style, Utahns can count on both his candor and decisiveness, he said. "My philosophy is built around honesty. . . . Sometimes honesty hurts, but I think in the long run it serves me and others well." While he will be cautious about change, he has no trouble making hard decisions when they must be made, he said.