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Utah Legislature: Supreme Court justices fight bill on picking their chief

SALT LAKE CITY — Saying they fear decisional and administrative independence could be lost, justices from the state's highest court continued to lobby Thursday in opposition to a bill that would allow the governor to appoint the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Christine Durham and Justice Jill N. Parrish met with the Deseret News editorial board Thursday, a day after meeting with the editorial board from the Salt Lake Tribune and a week after Parrish testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The justices are speaking out strongly against SB109. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. Currently, the justices themselves vote on their leader.

Justices are worried about the bill for a number of reasons, including how it would affect the separation of the executive and judicial branches of government.

"It really turns the courts into another executive-branch agency," Parrish said.

By doing that, the chief justice seat could become more of a political position, she argued. Justices say they shouldn't have to worry in the back of their minds about how constituents might react when making a ruling.

"Judges have loyalty to one thing only, and that's the law," Durham said.

Both Durham and Parrish said they are "baffled" as to what sparked the bill.

"We were not expecting that. It came out of nowhere. We're still not sure where it came from," Durham said. "The sponsor offered no explanation for the bill."

From a constitutional standpoint, the bill would undermine the separation of powers, Parrish said. From a practical standpoint, it could cause dissension among justices if an outsider who knows nothing about the personalities or work habits of the current justices was brought in.

"On a practical level, it just wouldn't work," Parrish said.

Jenkins amended his bill earlier this week to extend the length of time a chief justice would be appointed from four to six or even eight years. It was reported that he made the changes after meeting with members of the judiciary.

Durham, however, said Jenkins actually met with the Utah State Bar and had yet to talk to the justices about the proposal. And the change did nothing to improve their view of the bill.

"It has the potential to completely undermine the effectiveness of our leadership," Parrish said. "The fact it is sponsored by the majority leader concerns us greatly."