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Did you know you don’t have to be a lawyer to be a Justice Court judge in Utah?

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Posted at 3:25 PM, Jan 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-16 11:46:22-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A new bill on Utah's Capitol Hill is seeking to require judges in Utah's Justice Court system to actually be lawyers.

"You do not need to be a licensed attorney to be a justice court judge in the state of Utah," said Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City.

Hall is running a bill -- seeking a constitutional amendment -- to change that, requiring judges to be Utah State Bar certified attorneys. Data provided to FOX 13 on Friday shows that a majority of Utah's Justice Court judges don't have a law degree.

The Utah State Courts said only 44 of the 98 judges have law degrees. Of those, only 40 are certified by the state bar.

"The time has come for all judges in Utah to be licensed to practice law," Hall said.

Hall pointed to a series of audits that highlighted problems in Utah Justice courts, including judges that failed to notify people of their right to legal counsel and some judges acting as prosecutor, defense and adjudicator. The audits of the Utah State Court system focused on Sixth Amendment violations (right to legal counsel) and have spawned their own bills in the legislature.

"Frankly, Justice court judges deal every day with important constitutional issues including possible incarceration. Those reports have indicated our judges need to be better trained with respect to the Sixth Amendment and other issues," he said.

Justice courts handle misdemeanor cases ranging from drug possession to speeding and the majority of criminal issues are dealt with by them. The Utah State Courts said approximately 460,000 cases went through Justice courts in 2015, compared to 269,000 in District court.

In Salt Lake City, Justice court administrators said all of their judges are required to be attorneys. It is not the case in more rural parts of the state, where an attorney may be hard to come by.

The Utah Judicial Council backs legal education for judges, but disagrees with requiring a constitutional amendment -- where a majority of the legislature and voters would have to approve it.

"We don't think a constitutional amendment is the route to go. We think we can achieve 99.9 percent of what Rep. Hall wants to achieve with a statutory amendment," said assistant Utah State Courts administrator Richard Schwermer.

Schwermer raised concerns about what happens to the existing judges (particularly in rural areas where a replacement may be hard to find). He noted that in past years, the courts have sought to broaden the legal education for judges -- but the legislature rejected the request.

The bill will be considered in the Utah State Legislature.