Justice court’s lack of gavel leads to decertification talks


The Salt Lake Tribune

For want of a gavel, a Utah justice court found itself momentarily on the brink of decertification.

The Utah Judicial Council on Monday morning gave the Heber Justice Court until the end of February to come into compliance with two rules, including one that mandates each justice court has a gavel.

The gavel is not required in district courts, but is required for the smaller municipal and justice courts because proceedings are often held in city council chambers or other spaces that don’t necessarily convey the characteristics of a courtroom, officials said.

"There are really only two things that make it clear you’re a judge," Assistant State Court Administrator Rick Schwermer said. "One is a robe and one is a gavel."

Contacted after the council’s decision Monday, Heber Justice Court Judge Randy Birch said the decertification talks were the result of an oversight.

Birch, who has sat on the bench for about 18 months, said he saw the gavel on a checklist of requirements when he applied for the court’s re-certification late last year, but didn’t think the absence of one would cause problems.

When he was informed otherwise by court officials, Birch said the city purchased a gavel from an Internet site but did not inform state administrators of the purchase prior to the council’s meeting.

"Lesson learned," Birch said. "We’ve fixed it."

The Heber Justice Court also was out of compliance because the court did not have a room set aside for witnesses and victims.

Birch said he has since made arrangements to use the mayor’s office for that purpose on days when court is held.

The Judicial Council on Monday also took action regarding other justice courts:

• The Hildale Justice Court was given until the end of May to have a new judge in place. The Utah Supreme Court in 2006 ousted Judge Walter Steed for engaging in a plural relationship with three women. Richard D. Carr was appointed as a temporary judge shortly after that, and has been serving in the same capacity ever since.

• The Parowan Justice Court was re-certified after being granted a waiver for being out of compliance with a rule that requires courts to have separate tables for defense and prosecution. Court officials said the single, 12-foot-long table being used is sufficient.

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