State of the Judiciary Address
1999 State of the Judiciary AddressDelivered by
Chief Justice Richard C. Howe
January 18, 1999
President Beattie, Senators and guests:
Thank you for the opportunity to report to you today on the state of Utah's Judiciary. Before I begin, I would like to introduce to you the other members of the Supreme Court who are here with me today. I would also like to introduce to you District Judge Anthony Schofield from Utah County, who is the vice chairman of the Utah Judicial Council, and of which I am chairman; and Dan Becker, our State Court Administrator.
I welcome any chance I have to return to this wonderful and historic building. For more than 35 years have come to the Capitol, most recently as a member of the Supreme Court, but before that as a legislator. In fact, I sat at that very desk as a member of this body. Things have changed perhaps less than you might think. We still hold court here from time to time; we will have oral argument in the Supreme Court room here in the Capitol the first week in February. I still feel at home here.
While the primary location of the Supreme Court has changed since you last met, and we and the Court of Appeals, Administrative Office of the Courts, Third District Court and the Third District Juvenile Court have all moved into the Matheson Courthouse in the past year, the people's business has continued to be served uninterrupted, and the state of the judiciary is vigorous and healthy. Much as the growth of the state as a whole has "sizzled," as Governor Leavitt described it a few years ago, so has the caseload of our courts, and as the growth of the state has continued, but at a slower rate, so has the growth of the courts' workload. In 1998 our filings grew 4 percent over 1997 in the district courts. But I am not here today to go over statistics or to justify our resource requests; I will leave that to our able staff and to your appropriations process. Rather, today I would like to talk with you about the real work of the courts, the day to day efforts of judges and staff across the state to serve the people of Utah. I thought that by sharing with you two examples of how your judiciary affects the lives of Utahns, you might get a more tangible feel for the real state of the Utah Judiciary.
Our first story is about Patti. At 17, Patti began to use heroin. Her parents, very well respected members of our community, were distraught. They tried everything to keep a hold of their daughter, and to turn her back into the bright, sweet -girl that they had raised. But the grip of heroin is very powerful, and instead of drawing her nearer, her parents' efforts to help her were met by Patti with anger, and she soon left home. A short time later, Patti became pregnant. Sleeping where she could, sometimes even on the streets, and stealing to support her drug habit, even she knew she could not take care of a child. So she contacted her parents, and they agreed to care for their new baby granddaughter. But that was the last they would hear from Patti for over a year. Over the next six years, the pattern was the same; nobody would hear from Patti for months, and then she would call, say she was all right, sometimes ask for money, and the parents would go another several months without a word. Once, they didn't hear from her for 18 months; her parents didn't know if she had died, or was sick, or in jail. In fact, she was arrested several times on felony drug charges in various states, and had always fled or done a short jail sentence. Until one day, when the opportunity of her lifetime presented itself. She was arrested in Salt Lake City, and as she met with her court appointed defense attorney in jail, he explained to her an opportunity called drug court. The Salt Lake Drug Court, run by the Third District Court, would be a harder road than if she worked out a plea agreement with the prosecutor and spent a few months in jail, but the resources of the drug court could perhaps help her completely turn her life around, if she was ready.
Fifteen months later, after over a year of daily treatment; after over a year of almost weekly meetings with the drug court judge; after over a year of being completely drug free, a family is reunited. Patti's joyful parents now have their bright, sweet daughter back, an 8 year old girl has a caring, committed mother, and Patti has her life back. She now works in a law firm, supports her daughter, and has dinner with her parents every Sunday. And, she serves as a mentor and an example for the 200 people that are right now striving to be what she is: a drug court graduate.
I would also like to tell you about what happens when our justice system manages to help people like Patti before they get to the adult system. Let me tell you about Jeremy. Jeremy is 15, and Jeremy has already been to Juvenile Court several times. He has been referred for smoking, for truancy, and for joyriding. But one afternoon, Jeremy breaks into a house and steals jewelry from the school teacher that lives there, and the Nintendo set and a piggy bank from her 12 year old daughter. Jeremy also breaks several heirlooms and paintings in the house. When the teacher and her daughter come home, they are of course terrified at the thought of someone having been in their home, and heartbroken over their loss. A couple of weeks later, when they are told that a 15 year old boy has confessed to the break-in they feel a little better, but when they are asked to come in and meet with the boy to mediate the restitution, they are a little nervous. But as the process is explained, they agree to come.
At the mediation, a volunteer mediator, trained by the court, helps the teacher, her daughter and Jeremy talk about what would make them feel whole again. The value of the property damage is relatively easy to determine, but of course the sentimental value can't be quantified. The daughter says she is mostly just scared that they will be robbed again, and is at first frightened of Jeremy. But as they begin to talk about Jeremy and his means of repaying them, it becomes clear that he is from a disadvantaged family, that he has no real prospects for being able to get the money to pay the restitution amount. It also is clear to the victim, the teacher, that Jeremy is unlikely to graduate from school, and she slowly begins to care about his education, and his future. After another hour of discussion and some creative thinking, an unusual deal is struck. To make the daughter victim feel better, Jeremy apologizes to her and agrees to buy her a new piggy bank. As for the property damage and loss, Jeremy agrees to work in the juvenile court work restitution program to begin paying off the agreed amount, but then the victim, the teacher, offers to deduct $250 for each A or B Jeremy earns on his school report cards for the next year. To me that is amazing. Perhaps putting a face on a victim helps to make consequences more real for offenders, but sometimes putting a face on a troubled youth is good for the soul, and helps to make a community whole.
The juvenile court restitution mediation program I just described came about as the result of some innovative people in our courts listening to what victims and communities were saying about what they really wanted. What they wanted was accountability for juvenile offenders, and they wanted us to focus on helping to heal the community after violence is done to that community's values. We heard them, and I think we have responded positively. And we need to do that more often. For too long, the courts in Utah and courts throughout the country have paid more attention to what those in the Justice and legal communities were saying than to what the court's customers have been trying to tell us. Both perspectives are important, and we are making an effort to be sure that we are providing opportunities for the average person to speak up, and to be sure we are paying attention.
The best example of what I am talking about is the work of our Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Legal System. This group, made up of leaders from within both our criminal justicesystem and our ethnic communities, held twelve public hearings across the state over the last six months, from Logan to St.George, from Blanding to individual neighborhoods within Salt Lake City. The number of those attending were at times so large that people waited three or more hours for a turn to tell their story. These stories more often than not were directed at concerns over whether ethnic minorities are treated fairly by law enforcement, prosecution, the courts and corrections. Repeatedly, the concerns expressed were about the future, and particularly, what the future holds for their children. Our eyes have been opened, we have learned a great deal, and the Task Force will be working hard over the coming year to propose specific solutions to some problems that we have heard. Some of those solutions may require legislation, and I expect that we will need to talk about these issues before your next session.
Another issue that we expect to report to you about next year is the Family Court issue. Starting this month and continuing over the next six months, the Judicial Council will again be listening. Listening to what all those who have an interest in family law have to say about the obstacles they see in our present system for handling the multitude of family related disputes that come before our district and juvenile court judges, and their opinions on what types of changes would best address these obstacles. I should note that I have come to realize that the term "family court" is a term whose meaning varies from person to person, and certainly from state to state, Our research shows that no two states that say they have a family court have a court that is the same as another. Of course our research also shows that we are currently regarded as having one of the best court systems in the country, so we are proceeding carefully. As we examine this issue in Utah, we see family court as a continuum of options that range from a structural change at one end, in which the family court would become a division of the district court and the juvenile court would be eliminated, to at the other end, adopting different ways of information sharing between our existing district and juvenile courts that would allow for more collaborative case management of family disputes. In my opinion, there are no more important issues coming before our courts than those which are pulling families apart, and it is incumbent on us to take the lead in exploring ways in which our courts can more effectively deal with problems facing our families. In my address next year, after having heard from all interested parties, I hope to be able to share with you the results of our discussions and advance any proposals for change at that time.
Listening means making sure everyone who has an interest also has an opportunity to say their piece, and listening should also mean helping the individual who is trying to negotiate a complex legal system. For the past year a toll-free information line, or 1-800 number as it is commonly called, has been providing immediate help to hundreds of people per month. This line is staffed by our Administrative Office of the Courts, and it provides quick access to a free resource who can answer a wide variety of questions, from where do I file this small claims action to how do I get a domestic violence protective order. More routine questions are sometimes answered by our internet site, and while I personally do not "surf the net," I am amazed at how many people do. Literally tens of thousands of people are visiting our court web site each year for information on their courts, including court calendars, rules, and our Supreme Court and Court of Appeals opinions. Also, a new automated information line installed in the Matheson Courthouse allows anyone with a phone and their case number to get information directly from a computer on court dates, fine balances, the status of civil cases, and other case information. Soon we expect that the public will be able to use this system to pay their traffic fines over the phone, too.
Today I have spoken to both accomplishments and challenges. Each advance we make or problem we confront is not one we address alone. This state has a strong tradition of working together to address the issues that face us, and our best efforts are ones that we have addressed together. Of course, each branch of government has its role, roles we have taken and should take seriously. But our efforts are also complimentary, and the results of our labors should always be for the same end, the ends of the public we serve. We are always open to your input on issues of common concern, and today I would like to welcome whatever suggestions or ideas you might have for us to improve our court system.
As I mentioned at the outset of my remarks, I have had the honor of serving in both chambers of the legislature and now as Chief Justice of our Supreme Court. Through these experiences, my appreciation for our state government has only grown, and my pride in playing a part in serving our public is immense. I know that the judges and staff working in our courts feel that same pride, just as those who carry out the work of the legislature and executive do. In the course of that work, do ripples, and sometimes waves occur? Of course they do. They are an inherent part of our form of government. But looking at the lake as a whole, these ripples are few and far between. My pride, our pride in state government in Utah is well placed. I wish you well in your deliberations, and I thank you for your time.