Sanpete’s justice courts should be made of lay, rather than professional, judges

Being a lawyer is not the sole or even the most important qualification for being a justice court judge. The Messenger believes character, intellectual competence and community connection are also important requirements.

But we don’t only ask panels that will select judge nominees, and city councils who will make the ultimate appointments, to consider those qualifications. We also call on residents who, but for the lack of formal legal training, would be inclined to apply for judgeships.

Gunnison, Manti, Mt. Pleasant, Ephraim and Moroni are all filling the vacancies created by the retirement of Judge Ivo Peterson, who for years sat on the justice-court benches of all those cities.

His retirement also left open the judgeships in Fairview, Fountain Green and Spring City, and those municipalities have all selected Richfield-based attorney Mark McIff to fill those seats.

We urge McIff, and cities still selecting judges, not to follow Peterson’s pattern of making municipal justice courts essentially a full-time job. This is not because of anything we have against either McIff or Peterson. Rather, it grows out of certain values and that we believe are shared by most people in Sanpete County.

We do, however, urge officials to use Peterson as an example of a non-lawyer judge, and to strongly consider non-lawyers as city-court judges.

We believe in having, in our most local of courts, judges who are local—even hyperlocal—meaning, from the very city of the court over which they preside. One reason for this, we feel, is that judges in these kinds of courts should be should be connected and dedicated to their communities, viewing their work primarily as public service, rather than as career “work.”

A 1977 paper in the Chicago-Kent Law Review on the historical context and debate over non-lawyer judges stated, “[C]reating a cross-section of the community on the bench is an important goal.”

Another reason for having local judges in each city is to help ensure that they preside in person over their courts, rather than by Skype or videoconference as has sadly become more common. How can we expect defendants and plaintiffs to respect our courts if judges themselves don’t consider court important enough to be there in person?

There are justifiable exceptions to this, such as a proceeding that involves only attorneys. Otherwise, judges should be at all hearings where defendants are required to make personal appearances.

Some would say that law-trained judges are necessary to preserve constitutional rights of due process. The question has some history in case law, and courts have generally held that due process is not violated simply because a judge is not a member of the bar.

A New Mexico Supreme Court decision, reiterated in a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court, held, “The judge’s major function is to determine which of two espoused view-points—the [defense] attorney’s or the prosecutor’s—is applicable to the facts of the case before him. An unbiased and reasonably intelligent person should be able to choose fairly between such espoused viewpoints. Fairness in this context is not critically dependent upon the judge being a member of the bar.”

Judgeship nominees must demonstrate the intellectual ability to grasp the logic of legal arguments. But let’s face it, in a justice court, we don’t need a judge to plumb the legal depths.

As the same state supreme court cases in New Mexico and Montana stated, “A judge must have wisdom and common sense, which are at least as dependable as an education in guaranteeing the defendant a fair trial.”

Some will also say that a non-lawyer can’t appropriately apply the law. But we find that application of the law is more a matter of logic and character than of knowledge of the law itself.

In other words, we want judges who can ably review the law, rather than ones who could be editor of the Harvard Law Review.

A person can know the law and still misapply it or defiantly snub it, such as the Louisiana judge who knew the Supreme Court had decriminalized interracial marriage in 1967, but who nevertheless refused to perform such marriages; or the New York judge who refused to issue  a protective order against a man who had choked, kicked in the stomach, and threatened to kill his wife, said, “Every woman needs a good pounding now and then.”

It is difficult to conceive of anything like that happening in Sanpete County. But instances like those have more to do with character, and almost nothing at all to do with legal knowledge.

Whenever there’s an opening on the Supreme Court, there’s a lot of hey made about getting a nominee who will give us a court that “looks like America.”

We’re only Sanpete, and these are only city justice courts. We need judges who look like Sanpete, understand our culture and geography, are competent in their chosen undertakings and have deep connections to their communities.