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Utah Legislature: Issue of judiciary control in disarray

Fate of Jenkins' bill tied to failed reform measure in House

SALT LAKE CITY — A leading state senator says he will abandon his attempt to have Gov. Gary Herbert appoint the Supreme Court's chief justice if another judicial appointment reform bill passes.

But that measure, HB289, failed to make it out of a House committee Tuesday morning, throwing the whole issue of greater control of Utah's judiciary into question.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said he agreed to withdraw his SB109 should Rep. Curt Oda's HB289 pass.

But the House Judiciary Committee killed the Clearfield Republican's bill on a 6-5 vote. HB289 can be brought back later in the committee.

"I think I could have gotten the votes to get (SB109) out of the Senate," Jenkins said. It got preliminary approval with 15 votes but was held as compromises were worked on.

However, Jenkins said SB109's prospects in the House were iffy.

Jenkins' bill would let the governor appoint the chief justice. Currently, the five members of the Supreme Court pick from among themselves a chief justice, a practice held since statehood.

Four justices, including Chief Justice Christine Durham, strongly oppose SB109.

Justice Michael Wilkins, who will retire this spring, told the Salt Lake Tribune that he believes Jenkins' bill is proper. Wilkins did not return phone calls to the Deseret News for comment.

In speaking against SB109 in committee, Justice Jill Parrish said she and others worry that allowing the governor to appoint the head of the judiciary in Utah could throw politics into court decisions.

A justice who sought to be chief justice could try to please the governor and/or his political party while a future governor could put pressure on a sitting chief justice in return for reappointment to the top post.

Utahns, regardless of political affiliation, overwhelmingly believe it would be a bad idea to allow the governor to appoint the chief justice.

A new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows 73 percent say the law should not be changed to give the governor that privilege, while 23 percent say it should be changed. Among those surveyed who identified themselves as Democrats, 80 percent oppose the idea. Republican opposition is slightly less at 74 percent, and independent voters was even less at 68 percent.

Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll of 410 Utahns statewide Feb. 17 and 18. It has an error margin of plus or minus 5 percent.

Oda said that the judiciary's support of his HB289 came in part because of an agreement to withdraw SB109.

HB289 would allow the governor to staff the Judicial Nominating Commission. Under the state constitution, the governor has sole power to nominate judges, who are then confirmed to the bench by the Senate.

In addition, more nominees to circuit and appellate courts would be sent to the governor, and he would pick a nominee for Senate consideration.