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Howe hails gains by Utah judiciary

Chief justice has seen loads of changes

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In many ways, Utah is an entirely different state from the one it was 22 years ago when Richard C. Howe was sworn in as a member of the Utah Supreme Court.

Legislators were paid $15 a day (they now receive $120 daily), Rep. Jim Hansen was the speaker of the House, and the Utah Jazz had just arrived in the state. Only 2,800 felony charges were filed statewide in 1980, compared with 17,000 last year, and the number of trial judges has risen from 57 to 70.

But in other ways, things are still the same.

In 1980, the Olympics and Afghanistan made Utah headlines, as they do today. Lawmakers passed a House bill urging the state to support an American-led boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Now chief justice, Howe reminisced today about two decades on the state's highest court at his annual State of the Judiciary address. The 77-year-old chief justice's fourth speech had a markedly nostalgic tone, as it will be the last he ever delivers to lawmakers.

Howe's term as chief justice ends in April, and he will step down from the bench at the end of this year.

"As public leaders, you and I have many responsibilities, but none is more important than building trust in and support for our form of government, and for the rule of the law," Howe told legislators. "More than ever, our society needs the reassurance that comes with a reliable, fair judicial system grounded in the predictability of that rule of law.

"Our judges must be respected as caretakers of the laws and the legal system, preserving it for future generations."

Howe praised Utah's process of appointing judges to the bench, rather than electing them as most other states do.

In his interaction with chief justices from other states, Howe learned that many jurists spend their time fund raising and campaigning. The same attorneys who help finance judges' campaigns invariably appear before them in court, leading to conflict-of-issue concerns.

But a 1943 constitutional amendment allows Utah's governor to appoint judges based on merit, not popularity. Howe called the system "undoubtedly the best in the nation" and said he considers the adoption of the amendment the "most significant event affecting the Utah judiciary since Utah became a state in 1896."

That process will be invoked following Howe's Dec. 31 retirement, when Gov. Mike Leavitt will appoint his fourth Utah Supreme Court justice to fill the void on the five-member panel. Leavitt appointed Associate Chief Justice Leonard H. Russon in 1994 and justices Matthew B. Durrant and Michael J. Wilkins in January 2000.

Russon's anticipated retirement in two years will allow Leavitt to appoint an unprecedented fifth justice to the bench. Justice Christine M. Durham will be the only non-Leavitt-appointed judge. She was named to the bench in 1982 by the late Gov. Scott M. Matheson, who also appointed Howe in December 1980. Durham is a likely candidate for the chief justice position, which will be filled by secret vote early next month.

Howe was at home on the Senate floor today. Before his appointment to the bench, he served 18 years in public office, six terms in the House of Representatives and two as a state senator. He is also a former Murray City Court judge and private attorney.

During his time on the court, Howe worked to change three false perceptions of Utah's judicial system: that courts are an "insular and secretive institution," that they are an exclusive fraternity for those trained in the law and that the system is steeped in tradition and slow to make changes.

"None of these perceptions are accurate anymore," Howe said. "Over the last four years as chief justice, the oldest player has embraced change, and I am proud of the steps we have taken to challenge the perceptions I have just mentioned."

Utah courts now welcome members of the community through hearings about racial and ethnic fairness in the justice system, a bilingual information telephone line and a system that allows people to pay tickets by telephone.

Howe praised the State Board of Education and state judges for implementing civics and government classes in public schools, high school lecture series and drug presentations and career-day and mentor programs. He also hailed state court programs that offer aid to residents without attorneys, such as a nationally recognized online program and free legal clinics staffed by Utah lawyers.

"I hope I have made the kind of contribution that should be expected of one who has been given such wonderful opportunities and lofty responsibilities," Howe said to House members, who gave him a standing ovation. "I have enjoyed the aid and support of many truly gifted public servants, and I thank each and every one of you."

E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com