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Steve Stewart, Alta's part-time community judge for 19 years, is stepping down from the bench to become the first full-time executive director of the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission.

"It's a challenging job in that you're dealing with judges - they have power and they don't like to be investigated or complained about," Stewart said Monday. "But they need to be accountable."Stewart, 52, also is resigning as state director of the Division of Real Estate, where he has been responsible for licensing and disciplining 15,000 agents and appraisers. He will start his new judicial commission post Sept. 1.

Since 1985, the 10-member commission had relied on an attorney with a part-time contract to investigate complaints of unethical, illegal or unprofessional behavior by judges.

The number of complaints has increased, partly due to allegations of gender bias against 3rd District Judge David Young.

The earliest complaints against Young were filed in August 1994. When there was no response from the commission by June, the National Organization for Women called for legislators to seek an audit.

Stewart hopes any audit will be postponed until the commission's improvements have a chance to work.

Legislators have given the commission subpoena power and a heftier budget, allowing Stewart's full-time post. An additional investigator may be hired. Stewart is arranging an office in the Law and Justice Center.

The final disposition of complaints against judges are almost always kept secret, under the commission's rules and a constitutional amendment. Just one judge has been publicly disciplined in the past 10 years.

Even when the commission finds grounds to charge a judge with misconduct, the move is kept secret. The commission's 1995 annual report shows six Utah judges were privately reprimanded, admonished or given advice; and nine formal charges were filed. Their disposition is unknown.

By contrast, complaints against doctors, lawyers and other professionals are made public. The rare public discipline of a Utah judge must be approved by the Utah Supreme Court.