Facebook Twitter

Judicial panel to avoid private reprimands

SHARE Judicial panel to avoid private reprimands

The Judicial Conduct Commission has decided to avoid private reprimands for judges "unless it would serve the public interest."

The JCC voted unanimously Tuesday to amend its rules to provide more guidance for private reprimands issued to errant judges.

Among other things, this means there will not be a bill before the state Legislature this session that would change the way the JCC handles such reprimands.

Sen. David L. Thomas, R-South Weber, who had discussed putting forth JCC-related legislation, said he is satisfied with the compromise language in the new rule because it will open up the JCC's activities, which often are handled behind closed doors.

"It's a giant leap forward," Thomas said.

He said his legislation, which now will be scrapped, would have essentially done the same thing — establish some kind of standards for private reprimands.

"A lot of times everything seems to go to an informal reprimand," Thomas told the JCC. "It injures public confidence."

Thomas also expressed concern that without more open JCC proceedings, the public would remain in the dark about judges who are guilty of misconduct, and that could hurt voters when making choices about which judges to keep on the bench.

Utah's judges are appointed to the bench, then face "retention elections" in which the voters can keep or oust them.

The JCC is charged with investigating complaints of misconduct filed against state judges and, if necessary, recommending sanctions to the Utah Supreme Court. Much of the JCC's work is done in confidence to protect the privacy of the judge being investigated until it is determined that he or she really did do something wrong. Even then, the JCC only rarely recommends a public reprimand to the high court.

The JCC at its meeting reviewed six alternative rules, then adopted language proposed by its newest member, Ronald Russell.

The new rule states that the JCC will not recommend an informal order of reprimand "unless the commission upon written findings determines that an informal order of reprimand would serve the public interest."

Commissioners agreed that having written findings would give insight into how the agency came to its conclusions.

They wrestled for a time with questions of how to balance the privacy rights of judges against the public's need to know how the system is working. Those who favor keeping things private say judges could be harmed by false or frivolous complaints. But those who want more open proceedings contend that an approach that is seen as overly secretive makes the JCC's actions suspect.

Because much of the JCC's work is done quietly, people may perceive the JCC does nothing or doesn't do enough, even though that isn't the case, said JCC Executive Director Colin Winchester.

A recent legislative audit had recommended that the private reprimand matter be addressed.

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com