Utah: bill heading to governor requires judges be law school graduates, but doesn’t require they be admitted to practice law; Judicial Council must now approve new Justice Court positions in larger counties

A plan to require Justice Court judges in Utah’s largest counties graduate law school but not have to be admitted to the practice of law has passed its final legislative hurdle and is on its way to the governor.

HB 160 discussed here provides in operative part.

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

This avoids a constitutional amendment that prohibits the legislature from requiring admission to the practice of law as a requirement for these judgeship.

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.

The Senate approved the bill with several additional amendments that the House later agreed to

  • When a vacancy occurs if there are not at least three people who apply to the local justice court nomination commission that have graduated law school, the position will be re-advertised and the law-school-graduate requirement and residency rules waved. Moreover, the Administrative Office of the Courts would be required to notify every attorney in that county and adjacent county of the open judicial position.
  • Political subdivisions in counties of the first and second class would be placed under restrictions in terms of creating and eliminating judgeships.
    • Political subdivisions may only add a new justice court judge if the Judicial Council, after considering the caseload of the court, approves creation of the position.
    • Political subdivisions with multiple justice court judges may only eliminate a judgeship if a) the weighted caseload per judge is lower than 0.60 as determined by the Administrative Office of the Courts and b) only remove the position at the end of a judge’s term of office.