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Senior judges a nice asset

A program that allows judges to remain on the bench beyond normal retirement is a winner for the courts and for the citizens of Utah. It has given the U.S. District Court in Utah a considerable boost.

The three "senior" judges, J. Thomas Greene, Bruce S. Jenkins and David K. Winder, together handle about one-fourth of the entire caseload.They serve along with four - and soon to be five - active judges, giving the federal court its biggest bench ever and nowhere near the six- and seven-year caseload logjam that plagues other urban dis-tricts.

The program, using Greene as an example, works this way: At age 68 and with 12 years of service on the federal bench, Greene reached the so-called "rule of 80" (years of service plus age equals 80) in December and could have retired at full pay for the rest of his life.

Instead, he chose senior status, which allows judges to continue to hear cases on either a full- or part-time basis. Unlike a retired judge, a senior judge is eligible for regular pay increases, but the real benefit is to the litigating public and the court.

As U.S. District Court Clerk Markus Zimmer noted, the senior judges not only take some of the pressure off the active judges but also help keep the court running smoothly when there is a vacancy on the bench.

The judicial system needs just this kind of flexibility to improve itself in times when caseloads are growing. As Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael D. Zim-mer-man told the Utah Legislature, several factors have added additional burdens to judges in the past few years.

Though Utah's federal court hasn't experienced the kind of litigation explosion that has hit other districts, it needs to be prepared for a substantial caseload increase.

Specific types of cases, including wrongful termination and employment, civil rights and Americans with Disabilities Act cases, have increased significantly.

Disputes over new employment laws in particular pose a major challenge to the federal courts, not only because of the growing number of cases but also because there is little controlling precedent. The wisdom of Greene, Jenkins and Winder is invaluable. And so is their service.