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History of Reform Efforts: Utah

Formal Changes Since Inception

Supreme court judges elected by the people to six-year terms. District court judges elected to four-year terms.

Constitutional amendment provided that the governor appoint judges and do so "based solely upon consideration of fitness for office without regard to partisan political considerations." Judges retained their positions through contested, partisan elections. Term lengths of supreme court judges were increased to ten years and terms of district court judges to six years. The Utah State Bar was instrumental in the successful passage of the amendment.

Legislature made judicial elections nonpartisan.

Legislature created judicial nominating commissions to recommend candidates to fill judicial vacancies. Judges would continue to retain their seats through nonpartisan, contested elections. If judges are unopposed, voters are asked whether they should be retained.

Voters approved a new judicial article, which established merit selection as the exclusive method of choosing judges of courts of record. Judges would be nominated by the commission, appointed by the governor, confirmed by the senate, and retained through unopposed (retention) elections.

Court of appeals created.

Legislature amended the laws governing the state's judicial nominating commissions. The amendments dissolved the existing commissions and allowed the governor to appoint all commission members and name the chairs of the new commissions. Prior to the amendments, lawyer members were appointed by the Utah State Bar. The amendments also changed the chief justice's role to that of a nonvoting commission member, increased the number of nominees the commission must submit to the governor, and changed the procedures regarding public hearings and confidentiality. The amendments were initiated by Governor Leavitt, who believed that the commissions were not giving him the choices or the variety of judicial nominees he wanted. The governor was also concerned that it was inappropriate for the chief justice to be a voting member of the commissions. The bar and the judiciary initially opposed the amendments, but a compromise was reached that provided the bar and the chief justice with limited roles in the process. The bar submits a list of nominees to the governor, from which the governor appoints lawyer members of the commissions; the chief justice ensures that commission rules are followed and resolves any disputes regarding those rules. Two citizen groups, Utah Common Cause and United We Stand America, objected to the amendments on the grounds that they transferred too much power to the governor and that they would allow the governor to appoint judges based on political considerations rather than merit. For more information, see Owens, "Utah Judicial Nominating Commission Amendments," 1994 Utah L. Rev. 1605 (1994).

Created the Judicial Retention Election Task Force which is empowered to review and make recommendations concerning judicial selection and retention in the state.