Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael D. Zimmerman says that as the state's top jurist, he has tried to put the public ahead of lawyers and judges.

"I've always believed that how we administer justice and how we make justice available to the public is the most important thing we do," Zimmerman said.And administering the state's justice system is also the most challenging and enjoyable part of the chief justice's job, he added. At the same time, however, it is the most time-consuming part, which he says is why he decided to step down.

"Basically, it's my kids," Zimmerman said Friday.

A 53-year-old widower, Zimmerman said he could devote more time to his family by relinquishing the administrative burden of chief justice while continuing to serve as an associate justice on the court.

In a special meeting Thursday, the Supreme Court re-elected Zimmerman to another four-year term as chief justice and named Richard C. Howe as the associate chief justice.

But Zimmerman announced he would serve as chief justice only until April 1. The justices then elected Howe chief justice, effective upon Zimmerman's resignation. Howe, 73, was appointed to the court in 1980. He previously served 18 years in the Utah House and Senate.

Zimmerman was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1984. At the time, according to Zimmerman, the state's judiciary was a separate branch of government "in name only."

"It had no institutional leadership, lacked an administrative infrastructure, did no coordinated planning, and was funded from a variety of sources, state and local, all of which gave each of its parts a rather parochial character," Zimmerman said in a recent address to the Utah Bar Foundation.

Since then, however, voters approved a revision of the judicial article of the Utah Constitution that allowed "serious reform," Zimmerman said.

"In the years that followed, we have created a state-funded, centralized system of unified trial courts, with all judges selected by merit and retained by a yes-no ballot," he said.

Also, governance of the judicial branch of government is now in the hands of a judicial council made up of elected representatives from all levels of the courts and from the bar.

"This has produced one of the strongest, and I think, best judicial branch governance and management structures in the country," Zimmerman said.

But as impressive as those changes may be, they have had relatively little impact on the availability of legal services or the public's perception of the legal system, he said.

"The public increasingly sees the judiciary and the legal profession as a whole as inadequately responsive to its needs," Zimmerman said. "Lawyers are expensive, court rules are arcane, and the machinery of justice is effectively inaccessible to the public."

He called upon the judiciary to respond to those concerns, though he says that's already beginning to happen. For example, the courts have instituted alternative dispute resolution programs and a system to assist people who go to court without a lawyer. But those improvements "only scratch the surface," he said.