Morgan city seeks to dissolve justice court

Jul 14 2011 - 11:09pm

MORGAN -- Shrinking city funds, court cost overages, a retiring judge and low case-loads may mean Morgan city will no longer have a justice court.

The city council recently drafted a letter to the Utah Judicial Council asking for dissolution of the city's justice court. The council asked to waive the one-year waiting period as the city's regular judge will retire effective Sept. 15.

"It was a difficult decision, but one that had to be made," Morgan Mayor Jim Egbert said. "I am sure there are disadvantages in any decision the city council makes for the city. The decision with the dissolution of the city court is no different. This decision was made when efficiency in government and fiscal responsibility outweigh those disadvantages."

Several factors helped city officials make the decision.

"The process to find a new judge and a new court clerk is doable but is a daunting task at best. Certain criteria have to be met, and candidates have to have certain qualifications. Not just anyone can fill those positions," Councilwoman Shelly Betz said. "With both (the judge and court clerk) leaving and the courts running in the red, we took a good hard look at whether or not it was prudent to continue with a city justice court."

The city's justice court's history dates to 1868 when the city was granted township status. But after 143 years, city officials decided it was time to call it quits.

Small caseloads were one of the reasons behind the decision. The average traffic violations per month are around 25, with about three misdemeanor cases each month. Now, such cases will go directly to the Morgan County Justice Court, as dictated by state code.

Morgan County Attorney Jann Farris isn't concerned about the increased caseload.

"We are happy to do it. It would not overwhelm us. We can handle it with our existing staff," Farris said. "Without their own police force, it would not be very cost-effective for the city to continue their own justice court."

Money is the major impetus for the change, city officials agree. State surcharges/fees, judge salary, court clerk salary, attorney costs/fees, and other fees quickly add up to eat up the $40,000 in annual city court revenues, Betz said. In all, the court is losing between $40,000 and $50,000 each year.

Recouping those costs could help at a time the city has lost approximately 20 percent in revenues over the past four years, Betz said. In that time, employees have not had any raises. The city recently voted to give a flat $1,000 raise to all full-time employees with some of the money. Betz said the city will likely retain a small expense fund for any residual court costs and legal fees.

The city still will retain prosecution rights, and half of revenues for tickets issued in the city could go to the entity prosecuting the case, Betz said.

"So, 50 percent of the revenues would come to the city if we chose to have a case prosecuted to the fullest extent," Betz said. "The only difference will be where the defendant goes to have his case heard."

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