Utah: bill requires judges be law school graduates, but doesn’t require they be admitted to practice law; state constitutional language at issue

Is there a distinction between requiring a judge graduate from law school vs. a judge who is “admitted to the practice of law”? In Utah, there might be under a bill (HB 160) that is heading towards passage.

As previously noted, when Utah the state rewrote its Judiciary Article in 1985 Supreme Court Justices and all judges of “courts of record” were required to be “admitted to practice law in Utah.” However, judges of courts not of record were given a specific constitutional exemption

Judges of courts not of record shall be selected in a manner, for a term, and with qualifications provided by statute. However, no qualification may be imposed which requires judges of courts not of record to be admitted to practice law.

HB 160 as introduced required admission to the practice of law for justice court judges, subject to a constitutional amendment repealing this section (HJR 1).

HB 160 as amended leaves the constitutional provision, but requires that justice court judges in larger counties (first and second class) graduate from law school. No mention is made of “admitted to the practice of law.”

Effective May 10, 2016, a justice court judge is not required to be admitted to practice law in the state as a qualification to hold office but in counties of the first and second class, a justice court judge shall have a degree from a law school that makes one eligible to apply for admission to a bar in any state

Opponents argue that this provision violates at least the spirit of the state constitution and that it is a loophole. Proponents argue the provision will help improve the processes in the justice courts.

HB 160 was approved 3-1 yesterday (March 2) by the Senate Judiciary Committee. If approved by the full Senate it would have to go back to the full House for approval with Senate amendments added in committee.

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