Lawmakers debate diversity in Utah courtrooms

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A state lawmaker wants to scrap diversity from being considered when looking at who can become a judge in Utah.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, went before the Utah State Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee on Thursday, complaining that the group that nominates judges is using racial and gender diversity as part of its considerations -- which is not a part of the Constitution nor state law.

"The foundational principle is that race and gender are immaterial to fitness for judicial office," he told the committee.

Of Utah's 111 district court judges, only 29 are women, four are Latino, four are Asian and one is Native American. There are no African-American district court judges, according to data provided by the Utah State Courts.

Democrats on the committee pushed back against Rep. Nelson's proposal.

"The perception is that there aren't enough judges who reflect our community rather than doing it this way -- which looks like a deliberate attempt, I think, to be more discriminatory," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City.

Sen. Jim Dabakis said he believed there were not enough minorities as judges in Utah courts and called it a problem that affects hundreds of thousands of people who go through the system.

"Is it that we're not getting enough 50-year-old white, downtown, big corporate lawyers applying and all these minorities are edging out what seems to be the overwhelming singularity of judges in our state to an embarrassing point of view?" he asked.

Nelson, and other Republicans on the committee, argued that professional qualifications are what should count in picking a judge.

"The notion that women and minorities need a special preference, I think is offensive to them," Nelson told the committee.

The committee did not vote on the proposal. Thursday's meeting was interrupted by an earthquake drill and the Capitol was evacuated. When the meeting resumed, Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Dabakis were not there.

Dabakis wrote on Twitter that they didn't return so there could be no vote.

Sen. Davis denied to FOX 13 he skipped the vote, but said he got tied up on phone calls.

The proposal will come back, but the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice told the committee it would scrap the diversity provision. Instead, it will bring it back as a rule which would be subject to a public process. Lawmakers have also threatened legislation to do away with the diversity provision.