The bulging pockets of the Utah State Bar may be used to match a businessman's offer that would "enhance the dignity" of the state's newest courthouse.
Dubbed by some lawmakers as another Taj Mahal, the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City will cost $70 million when it is completed next January. But others, including state architects and some big-name attorneys, feel the building is too spartan. They are seeking as much as $500,000 in donations from bar members.The cash would be matched dollar-to-dollar by Utah businessman Ian Cumming and pay for extras such as granite, instead of concrete, steps on the front of the new building.
Supporters say the building is functional but needs the extra money to add a touch of permanence and class. The donations could also pay for additional lighting, "classic" courtroom benches for public seating, flagpoles, enhanced stile and rail doors and limestone tile on the floors of the courthouse's rotunda.
However, accepting private donations for the complex raises legal and ethical concerns.
In a memo to State Court Administrator Daniel J. Becker, Brent Johnson, counsel for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said legal issues are easily resolved but that ethical issues linger.
Individual judges are prohibited from receiving gifts, Johnson noted. Donations to the courts complex could be construed as gifts to judges.
"In order to avoid this problem, donations should not be used to benefit any single judge over other judges, and, preferably, gifts should not be identified by donor."
Donors should be "generally" recognized, Johnson told the Deseret News Friday, but he hopes that no names would be made public.
"Anytime you have names of large potential donors going around, you have to be concerned," Johnson said.
That comes as a bit of a surprise to bar President Steven M. Kaufman, who with bar commissioners meeting here, is freely discussing Cumming's offer.
"No one ever told us we had to keep his name hush-hush. The question of judicial influence has really been a non-issue. I don't think (Cumming) is doing this to seek any sort of judicial kindness.
"There's a larger question here that overshadows what people think. Individuals who are wealthy want to give back to the community. And I think that's all he wants to do," Kaufman said.
Cumming has already donated $10,000 and may match up to $500,000, bar Commissioner Fran Wikstrom said. Noted civil attorneys Randy Dryer and Jim Clegg are leading the efforts to persuade the bar to match Cumming's dollar-to-dollar offer. One possible plan is for the bar to commit all or part of a current $100,000 budget surplus, which was generated from a dues increase seven years ago.
Bar members could choose to "opt-out" of participating in the donation with a letter or phone call to commissioners. If they did participate, their pro-rated share, which totals about $16, would offset their dues the following year, the plan goes.
The problem is that mandatory increase in 1990, from $225 to $350 annually, still irks many Utah lawyers because it was used to pay for the bar's Law and Justice Center near downtown Salt Lake City - a building many attorneys never set foot inside.
"I think you're going to have a variety of members from a variety of places off the Wasatch Front say, `You've got to be kidding!' " said commissioner Craig Snyder. He noted the bar commission has refused in the past to donate members' money to public buildings and ought to stick by that policy.
Commissioner John Florez, who represents the public-at-large, reflected a view that has dogged building supporters from the beginning and will probably be enough reason for many bar members to refuse to meet Cumming halfway.
"I think the whole . . . thing is a profanity, a bait and switch thing. They raised (court) filing fees to build it, saying a new building would benefit the public. But it's really just for the convenience of the professionals who use it," Florez said.
Commissioner Scott Daniels disagreed with both views. "Public buildings, especially courthouses, should convey dignity," he said.
The commission, composed of 10 attorneys and two members of the public-at-large, did not vote on the question Thursday and plan to revisit it during their April meeting.
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael D. Zimmerman said he hopes his fellow attorneys statewide will give serious thought to Cumming's offer.