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Utah judges are sent a wake-up call

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Are Utah judges sleeping on the job?

Judicial officials say the vast majority of Utah's judges are alert and attentive, but when an attorney sent an anonymous letter to this month's Utah Bar Journal, complaining that some judges are catching a few winks on the bench, reaction was swift and unapologetic by one top Utah judge.

"I've seen the problem in more than one county, but since my practice is pretty geographically limited, I'd rather not be identified," stated the letter. "I would like suggestions on how to wake the snoozing judge. I'd like to think I'm not the only boring attorney in Utah."

Utah Court of Appeals Judge Gregory Orme, who sits on the Utah Bar Journal's editorial board, said in his 20 years as an appellate judge, he has seen judges snooze while in meetings. But while sleeping during a meeting may be "rude," sleeping during a court hearing is just plain unethical, Orme said.

"I actually have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the writer's observation. And my guess is he or she is talking about the same judges I have observed nodding off in meetings and at conferences," Orme wrote in his published response.

Orme told the Deseret Morning News that while slumbering on the bench is not a big problem among Utah's judiciary, it should not be ignored if it happens.

"When a judge takes the bench and is doing the public's business, now it becomes very important to stay awake," Orme said. "A judge is just duty-bound to stay awake whatever it takes."

In his published response, Orme encourages his fellow judges to get enough sleep, drink a caffeinated beverage and if all else fails, see a sleep specialist.

Colin Winchester, executive director for the Judicial Conduct Commission, said in the past five years, the JCC has received only one complaint of a judge sleeping on the bench.

"We had one complaint of a judge sleeping through some proceedings," Winchester said. But when JCC investigated, neither the attorneys nor the judge's clerk confirmed the claim and the complaint was dismissed due to lack of evidence. More than likely, Winchester said the judge in question may have been "leaning back with his eyes closed" but still listening. An inspection of an audio recording of the hearing did not show any indication that attorneys were trying to wake the judge.

In other states, judges have been disciplined, even dismissed as judges, for slumbering. In 2002, a judge in Texas was publicly admonished for repeatedly sleeping on the bench. In 2001, an Arizona judge was removed from office for sleeping, despite his claim that he suffered from narcolepsy.

Orme said the onus is on judges to make sure they are alert, mainly because attorneys appearing before them may hesitate to bring it up.

His response to the anonymous letter, Orme said, serves as a "wake-up call" for judges — pun intended.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com