Last year, the 2023 Legislature significantly eroded the roles of the state judiciary and the Utah State Bar, and again this year the 2024 Legislature encroached on the judiciary’s role. It passed what is often referred to as a “judge shopping” bill. In House Joint Resolution 8 (HJR8), the litigants (plaintiffs and defendants) in a civil suit in larger Utah counties are allowed to disqualify a randomly assigned judge for no stated reason (“without cause”) and have a different judge assigned to the case. Previously, the standard for disqualification had been for “good cause,” namely a motion and evidence of a conflict of interest, demonstrable bias, or other good cause for a judge’s recusal.

Under the Utah Constitution, amending a rule of civil procedure like the above requires passage by 2/3 of all members of both houses of the Legislature. After the bill’s passage in the full House, UCC testified against it in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The vote was 3-2 in favor, with one absent member. A tie vote would have killed the bill. Subsequently, the Senate passed it by a 2/3 majority, and it was signed by the Governor. Undermining our independent judiciary this way serves no good purpose.

UCC is concerned about HB 344 (Judicial Rules Review Amendments), which disbanded the Legislature’s Judicial Rules Review Committee and combined its role with that of the Administrative Rules Review Committee. The latter committee had been active in reviewing agency rules in recent years while the Judicial Rules Committee had been inactive, so the legislative sponsor argued for merging the two Committees. The Administrative Rules Committee’s role to review, evaluate, and make recommendations about existing or proposed agency rules now has been expanded to include court rules, although it cannot examine internal judicial policies, procedures, and practices. Nonetheless, the merged Committee (renamed the Rules Review and General Oversight Committee) appears able to insert itself into the work of the judicial branch far more than before. The impact is uncertain, but UCC will be watching.

SB 200 (Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission Amendments) shrank the membership of the Commission from 26 to 17 members by removing the Chief Justice of Utah’s Supreme Court or designee, the Utah State Bar designees from the criminal defense and juvenile defense bar, the head of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders, the Salt Lake County District Attorney, the citizen representative, mental health and civil rights designees, and others, leaving the commission weighted more heavily toward state department/agency directors, corrections officials, and police and sheriffs’ associations.

Finally, a note of interest: In 2023, the Legislature eliminated the need for bipartisan representation on judicial nominating commissions. (Also eliminated were the Utah Chief Justice, representatives of the judiciary, and attorneys nominated by the Utah State Bar.) Now, the first group of judicial nominees under the reconfigured commission were nominated to fill 2 vacancies on the Third District Court in Salt Lake County. Of the six names sent to the Governor to fill two vacancies, five were prosecutors and one was a criminal defense attorney. The Governor appointed two of the prosecutors, who are now subject to Senate confirmation.