Attorneys for 3rd District Judge David S. Young are challenging the authority of the Judicial Conduct Commission in its efforts to reprimand the judge for a phone call he made to an attorney in 1994.
The issue was argued Wednesday before the Utah Supreme Court, which has the final say in all public disciplinary matters involving the state's judiciary.The Judicial Conduct Commission recommended in January that the Supreme Court publicly reprimand Young for violating at least three judicial canons during a phone conversation with an assistant attorney general.
Attorney Dan Berman told the justices that the Judicial Conduct Commission violates the separation of powers provision of the state constitution because four of its 10 members are legislators.
"The basic business of the Judicial Conduct Commission is to discipline judges, which impacts the independence of the judiciary," Berman argued.
Not only do legislators serve on the commission, they appoint its members, and Berman contends that's a function of the executive branch of government.
He also challenged the commission's recommendation regarding Young specifically, saying that Young was no longer even involved in the matter under discussion with the assistant attorney general.
According to the commission, the judge initiated the conversation only "to satisfy his personal passions of annoyance and dismay" over a newspaper article involving one of his cases.
In the same conversation, he also led attorney Raymond Hintze to believe that he was trying to extort an agreement in a high-profile case before him.
The case involved Park City School District's decision to suspend an eighth-grader who was accused of bringing a gun into Treasure Mountain Middle School.
Though the student claimed the gun had no trigger and was inoperable, the district suspended him anyway under its new "zero tolerance" policy. His parents objected and took the matter before Young, who shocked the district with an order to reinstate the student.
According to the Judicial Conduct Commission, Young told Hintze in chambers that he was considering awarding the parents' attorneys $6,000 in fees and perhaps as much as $18,000 if the district persisted in attempting to suspend the boy.
"In short, Judge Young extorted an agreement from the Park City School District to refrain from suspending a student or to face an additional $12,000 of attorney's fees," wrote Superintendent Donald J. Fielder in his complaint to the commission. "This act is nothing short of extortion."
The commission said that while Young had not, in fact, attempted to extort an agreement, he had given that perception to school officials.
"(District officials) were placed in the awkward position by the judge of settling a dispute without wanting the plaintiff to be aware of the judge's perceived proclivity to sanction the school district," the commission said in a decision issued in November 1996.
Therefore, Young's conduct brought the judicial office into disrepute, it said.