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‘We are out of bandwidth’: Utah’s court clerks bear brunt of transition to online hearings

In pandemic, about 10% of Utah’s judicial assistants have retired or quit

The Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.
The Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Clerks keep Utah’s courtrooms humming, whether they’re swearing in witnesses, maintaining records or making sure judges don’t overlook any procedural steps.

Now, the pandemic is heaping more work onto the already busy employees as proceedings have moved largely online. The change is taking a significant toll on their health and prompting several to leave the job altogether, a group of lead clerks from across the state wrote in a memo to the Utah Judicial Council earlier this month.

“If it hasn’t reached the breaking point, it’s very close,” Utah’s 11 supervising clerks of court wrote in the letter dated Dec. 16. “Many solutions found during the pandemic have fallen directly on the clerical staff to carry out and now, several months in, we are out of bandwidth to take on any more.”

Clerks, referred to in Utah’s court system as judicial assistants, are playing the part of information technology specialists as they help those due in court to log in to videoconference software. They’re falling behind on other duties as they dedicate time to the technical aspects, noting attorneys often fail to help their clients figure out the online system.

The letter recommended several potential steps to ease the burden, including limiting the number of hearings per day, bringing on recent retirees as temporary clerks and ensuring the employees receive overtime pay or compensatory time away from the courthouse.

In response to their concerns, the council — the policymaking arm of the courts — voted last week to set aside $100,000 each month for the next six months to bring back judicial assistants who have recently left the job. And it’s exploring other ways to provide relief.

State Court Administrator Mary Noonan, a member of the council, said she’s grateful the clerks spoke up.

“They not only identified problems, but recommended some possible solutions,” Noonan told the Deseret news. “That’s leadership.”

“We’ve essentially reinvented the way the courts provide services,” Noonan continued, describing clerks as critical in the transition to a virtual system. “Without our judicial assistants, this machinery really just doesn’t run.”

Noonan said it’s also up to Utah’s eight individual judicial districts and the courthouses within their borders to determine any additional local measures that could help alleviate the strain on clerks.

Since the onset of the pandemic, 41 have left their jobs, with several citing the pandemic workload as the reason for leaving, according to the state courts system. That’s out of a total of 391 positions statewide. And while the turnover isn’t significantly different from years past, more of the jobs — 35 — remain vacant.

Remaining employees have scrambled to keep pace with the workload and to cover for co-workers who can’t come to work because they’re sick, exposed or otherwise affected by COVID-19. The memo says the transition has eaten up their nights and weekends.

“Court is crazy — prep has doubled, clerking is stressful, and phone calls are through the roof,” reads the memo that arose from a meeting where the clerks of court discussed the severe degree of burnout. “In some cases, front counters are experiencing heavier traffic than before the pandemic.”

In the long term, they noted, better pay would help boost their sinking morale. The starting wage for a judicial assistant is $16.54, compared to $19.50 for a probation officer, they noted.

And while the online format has complicated hearings and the scheduling process, it’s not just the format that has changed in the pandemic. The sheer volume of cases is also growing.

Jury trials remain on pause in most of the state because of COVID-19 outbreaks, so a backlog of criminal cases is reaching almost double the normal amount, 3rd District Judge Todd Shaughnessy said at a Dec. 21 meeting of the judicial council. Adequate staffing will be imperative when trials resume and begin churning through the pile, he said.

Other judges on the council said they’re troubled that court employees are working overtime but not reporting the hours.

“That needs to stop today,” 4th District Judge Derek Pullan told the council. “We have got to get our arms around that.”

The council discussed the potential for bonuses for judicial assistants next year, in addition to approving the money it hopes will lure back former employees on a temporary basis.

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said the move is an important step, calling clerks “the backbone of our court system.”

“It wouldn’t hurt us to reread this letter every once in a while just to be reminded of the pressure that they’re under,” he said.