Sanpete Cities face red tape to appoint justice court judges
Judge Ivo Peterson, who has presided over municipal justice courts in eight Sanpete County cities, has announced he is stepping down from the bench entirely, effective June 30 for health reasons.
Earlier this year, Peterson resigned in three of the towns—Fairview, Spring City and Fountain Green. All three have appointed Mark McIff, an attorney from Richfield, as their judge.
Because Peterson will be undergoing surgery this week on his wrist and elbow, and faces two more surgeries, one on each foot, McIff and Sanpete County Justice Court Judge John Cox are substituting for him in his other five cities–Gunnison, Manti, Ephraim, Moroni and Mt. Pleasant.
With his resignation becoming official June 30, those towns now face the complex process of finding new judges.
The multi-step process, which takes 2-3 months and mirrors the process used to select state-level judges, is designed to make sure justice court judges are unbiased and are chosen based on qualifications and local needs, Melisse Stiglich, who coordinates justice court judge selection for the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts, told Sanpete County mayors and commissioners at a meeting on Thursday, June 8, in Mayfield.
At minimum, a justice court judge must be 25 years old, have a high school diploma or GED, be a U.S. citizen, be a Utah resident for three years and be a resident of the county where he or she will serve—or an adjacent county—for six months.
But over the years, practice and policy have served to establish other qualifications that have made Utah’s justice courts more professional. Many judges have law degrees, and all justice court judges go through initial training and yearly continuing education.
Before they can be sworn in, they must pass an exam and gain final approval from the Utah Judicial Council, the panel of judges that runs Utah’s court system.
Nonetheless, “the perception that justice courts are not fair is still out there,” Stiglich told the mayors and commissioners. That’s why a selection process with many checkpoints is so important, she said.
One key element in the process is the selection of people to sit on the panel that selects judgeship nominees.
Three of the members of this nominating commission are selected on a countywide basis. In Sanpete County, the county commission has named Jack McAllister of Mt. Pleasant, a retired attorney, to the panel that will help fill the five upcoming vacancies.
The regional bar association has named Doug Neeley of Manti, a local attorney in private practice.
A third member is named by the mayors in the county collectively. At the mayors and commissioners meeting, Sanpete County mayors approved Kelly Frandsen of Centerfield, a dentist, as a member, with Theresa Alder of Ephraim, a real estate broker, as an alternate.
The final two members are named by the city council in the town seeking the judge. Those two members change out for each municipality.
Ephraim and Moroni have started the selection process. Both have a chance of selecting a judge before the next new-judge orientation in August. That means their new judges could be in place by about September.
The deadline for judgeship applicants in Ephraim is June 20, the city already having twice extended the application period.
The initial deadline for the Moroni opening was June 14 (yesterday). However, there is a good chance Moroni, like Ephraim, will extend for at least another 15 days.
Gunnison, Mt. Pleasant and Manti haven’t started the process yet. So chances are they won’t have a judge in place until the beginning of 2018.
All five of the towns will probably need to arrange for substitute judges to preside from now until their new judges are certified.
The pay range for justice court judges is based on their caseloads. In smaller towns in Sanpete, the salary ranges from $4,000 to $10,000 per year. In Ephraim, which is a larger city with a larger caseload, the range is $11,000 to $20,000. A judge serving all eight towns that have justice courts, as Peterson has done, can expect earnings of up to $80,000.
Justice courts hear arguments and conduct trials for Class B and Class C misdemeanors, small claims and infractions (usually traffic violations). If needed, justice court judges may also preside over preliminary hearings in Class-A misdemeanor and felony cases.