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Rent-a-judge? That occasionally has been the answer of some states, including Utah, to those long civil suits that take years to come to trial, then stretch out sometimes for years before a verdict is handed down.

Here's how the remedy works. It allows a trial outside the regular legal system by a referee, usually a retired judge, chosen by both parties in a civil case. They don't consider criminal cases.The trial can be held almost anywhere, even at home or in a school classroom. The judge's decision becomes binding and is entered into the court record just like any other judgment.

We mention this procedure because the day could come when Utah may want to expand on it. Why? Because of the growing burden on Utah courts mentioned this week by state Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Zimmerman in his annual State of the Judiciary address.

Noting a 21 percent increase in misdemeanor filings and a 31 percent increase in felonies, Zimmerman warned that the burden on Utah's courts can be expected to grow as long as the state's population grows - particularly the segment of young adults most prone to crime. With more criminal cases clogging the courts, that means more delays in handling civil cases.

Though there's no crisis now, eventually Utah must respond in a variety of ways, including more judges with more courtrooms and more reliance on alternative ways of settling disputes outside the usual judicial system.

It's just such pressures that prompted the rent-a-judge plan, even though some states find it expensive. So expensive, in fact, that civil rights groups fear it could favor the affluent over the poor.

That fear may be justified in public issue cases, where corporate interests clash with the public interest. But many civil cases pit corporate interests against each other, with little or no public involvement. Those, at least, ought to be cases ripe for the rent-a-judge system. If cases can be settled more expeditiously than they now are, certainly the quality of justice should improve.

Besides, costs can be exacted in more ways than just those involving dollars and cents. Some serious social costs can arise when justice is denied by being delayed. The challenge for Utah is to start planning ahead now to deal with the problems created by increasingly crowded courts. Let's not wait for a full-blown crisis to arise.