One lawmaker says Utah voters should elect judges, not have them appointed by the governor

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A proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution would radically change the way judges are chosen in the state.

Right now, the governor fills an opening on the bench by nominating replacements who are subject to confirmation by the Senate. Voters then decide whether to keep that judge in place every through years through a retention election.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, says the current process is not working, because voters don’t pay any attention to the judges, and know nearly nothing about them when voting whether to keep or remove them.

Instead, his idea is to have judges run for election, with judges vying for four-year terms, and Supreme Court justices up for election every six years.

“You look at our retention elections and, I’m not going to tall it a joke, but I’m going to call it a joke,” says McCay. “Our retention elections are a rubber stamp in a lot of ways. It’s hard for voters to go find the information about a judge. There is a disconnect between the courts and the people.”

McCay notes that a few other states including Nevada and Oregon have judges campaign for their seat on the bench rather than through the appointment/confirmation process.

He says SJR8 will ultimately lead to more oversight of the judiciary from the voters.

“I think the judicial branch reaching out to the public and talking about the things they’re working on and their stances on various issues is a valuable conversation to be had that we’re not having today,” he said.

The Utah Bar Association released a statement on Wednesday opposing McCay’s proposed change, saying the current system is the best way to maintain an independent judiciary.

“States that have adopted the direct election process for judges have experienced a multitude of unintended consequences,” said the email statement. “The current system of judicial selection has served Utah well in creating a highly respected judicial system for Utah’s residents.”

Since it is a change to the Utah Constitution, McCay’s proposal must pass both the House and Senate with a 2/3 majority. If that occurs, Utah voters must approve it in November.