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Judicial-conduct rules pending

Legislature wants standards for rulemakers

New rules are expected to go into effect at the Judicial Conduct Commission that are supposed to shed more light on the process of disciplining judges charged with misconduct.

State legislators, however, also want the Judicial Conduct Commission itself to face some scrutiny.

Senators and representatives with the Administrative Rules Review Committee said the elimination of private reprimands at the Judicial Conduct Commission is a step in the right direction toward making judicial conduct hearings more public. The JCC has long been criticized for its closed hearings and for keeping the option of issuing a private reprimand, which is never made public or reported to the Utah Supreme Court.

All that changed when the Utah Supreme Court ruled private reprimands had no constitutional basis. However, the high court did allow the JCC to issue warnings in cases in which there is "troubling but relatively minor misbehavior" but not enough to warrant an official public sanction. The JCC hears allegations of misconduct by judges but not about a judge's rulings, since those can be appealed in court.

Colin Winchester, executive director of the JCC, told the committee the new rules would soon go into effect.

Committee co-chairman Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, said he felt even if allegations don't rise to the level of misconduct and a warning is issued, it should be made public. Ure said about 90 to 95 percent of Utah's judges are upstanding, but there is a short list of judges who have become repeat problems. No names were mentioned.

Winchester said there are about five Utah judges who account for between 30 to 40 percent of all JCC complaints.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Waddoups, R-West Jordan, and Rep. Judy Buffmire, D-Salt Lake, said there have been concerns in the past about whether judges who commit misconduct are properly penalized.

"The danger is losing faith in the judiciary," Buffmire said.

Legislative staff has suggested that information on cases that have been dismissed by the JCC be kept, without the names of judges.

Ure said although the Supreme Court has oversight on cases of official misconduct, no such oversight exists on cases which are denied. By having the Legislature review a report of misconduct cases denied by the JCC, Ure said there will be a "check and balance" to determine of judges are being let off the hook. Ure anticipates the judiciary might bristle at the thought of having such cases reviewed by legislators.

Members of the Utah Supreme Court had no comment on the proposal.

Assistant State Court Administrator Rick Schwermer said the Legislature certainly is entitled to ask for such information from the JCC. He did point out that the four members of the JCC are legislators and that a bill passed several years ago required that all conduct cases, including dismissals, be submitted to the Supreme Court for review as well.