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Utah courts called a stabilizing force

Durham highlights state’s accomplishments, goals

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Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham speaks during opening day.

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham speaks during opening day.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

Aside from three years of budget cuts and the shameful drug conviction and disbarment of a district court judge, Utah's Supreme Court chief justice told the Legislature the state's courts and judges remain some of the best in the country.

If government can be likened to a ship whose sails are blown by "political and social winds," then the judiciary is its rudder, Chief Justice Christine Durham said during her State of the Judiciary address on Monday.

It is the "predictability and steadiness" of Utah's courts that lend strength at a time when new legislative leadership and a new governor are settling in, Durham said.

Dressed in her black judge's robe, Durham addressed the Senate and House on both the needs and accomplishments of Utah's court system. As in past years, Durham stressed the public's ability to access the courts.

Durham used legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky's ability to "skate where the puck is going to be, not where it is," to illustrate the philosophy of Utah's courts.

"Our goal is the same. The needs of the court are constantly changing, and we are constantly trying to be there first," she said.

Highlighted were the court's efforts to establish an electronic filing system as well as a system that would allow people to pay their traffic tickets by phone. This year, the court's Web site, www.utcourts.gov, received a third national award for Web design. The site includes court calendars, civil judgments, a child support calculator and documents ready for court filing. The courts also have begun using Internet audio for Supreme Court arguments.

"Utah is a national leader in the use of problem-solving courts," Durham said, including drug courts, mental health courts and domestic violence courts. Along the line of alternatives for offenders, Durham came out in support of Sen. Chris Buttars' Drug Offender Reform Act bill, which proposes to direct first-time, nonviolent drug offenders to outpatient counseling instead of incarceration.

"We strongly support this legislation's goal of providing more information to sentencing judges and more resources for treatment efforts, particularly in the form of drug courts," Durham said.

The chief justice also stressed the integrity of Utah's judges, this after a Legislature attempt two years ago to impeach former 4th District Judge Ray Harding Jr. after he was arrested on suspicion of drug possession.

Durham pointed out that a look at the behavior of judges in other states shows Utah's judges are a cut above.

"With remarkably few exceptions, Utah's judges are men and women of integrity, competence and commitment, and I am deeply proud to serve with them," she said.

Yet after three years of budget cuts, Durham said Utah's courts need funding in two key areas. Durham asked legislators for money to hire five new attorney law clerks to help judges. While other states afford one clerk per judge, Durham said the ratio would be five judges to one clerk if her proposal is passed.

The second area is in judicial salaries. Durham said former Gov. Olene Walker and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have supported funding to keep Utah's judicial positions competitive among attorney salaries. Without funding, Durham said Utah cannot continue to attract attorneys with the intelligence, character and work ethic to keep Utah's judiciary strong. The current annual salary range for beginning district and juvenile court judges is around $104,000. A state study showed that judge salaries have fallen 13 percent below salaries of upper-level public attorneys.

Durham also announced the creation of a special commission to examine the state's policies when it comes to the treatment of foster children. The move comes after the release of a national study on foster children by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Durham said a Utah version of the study will be conducted by a commission comprised of top government leaders as well as leaders from businesses, faith-based organizations and child advocacy groups.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com