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Utah House Votes To Ban Consideration Of Race, Gender For Potential Judges

Lee Hale

On Wednesday the Utah House of Representatives voted to ban the consideration of race or gender when filling judicial vacancies.

Here’s how a Utah judge makes it to the bench: Gov. Gary Herbert receives several recommendations from the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ). He chooses one nominee from that pool of applicants, and that person is confirmed by the Utah Senate. 

The CCJJ has adopted certain criteria for considering potential judges. Those include legal knowledge, professional experience and impartiality. It says that if candidates are equally qualified, the commission could consider race or gender as a tiebreaking factor to promote diversity.

HB93, sponsored by Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, would adopt the CCJJ’s criteria into state statute, except for the rule regarding race and gender.

“Under current practice, the CCJJ considers additional considerations like race and gender,” Nelson said on the House floor Wednesday. “They are not legally permitted to do so. This bill is to discontinue that illegal practice.”

Nelson says it’s primarily a legal and constitutional argument, and that the rules regarding judicial nominations are supposed to be written by the legislature.

But several lawmakers argued against the bill and said that between two qualified candidates, it’s important to consider underrepresented populations, especially since the majority of Utah’s judges are white males.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, pointed out that while Latinos make up about 14% of Utah’s population, more than 18% of Utah inmates are Latino, and while 1% of Utahns are African American, 6% of Utah inmates are black.

“When individuals come to the table who are diverse and provide that additional experience, I think you will see improvements related to incarceration levels and that there will be more equity and fairness within our community,” Chavez-Houck said.

Twelve Republicans joined the House Democrats in voting against House Bill 93, but it passed with a vote of 47-25 and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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