DISTRICT COURT (THIRD DISTRICT : SALT LAKE COUNTY)
Agency History #1688
Divisions of the district court were established in each county in accordance with the constitutional requirement that all civil and criminal business arising in any county be conducted at least four times a year at the county seat in such county (Article VIII, Section 5). The third district court, to which Salt Lake County is assigned in 1896 by the newly adopted constitution of Utah (Article VIII, Section 1), was established to provide for the equitable distribution of justice to the people of the district and to help keep the domestic peace (Article VIII, Section 21) and designated as a trial court of general jurisdiction (Article VIII, Section 7).
Included in the judicial system established by the state constitution are the district courts, which were established to be the trial court of general jurisdiction. According to statute, the district court holds exclusive original jurisdiction in "all matters civil and criminal, not excepted in the Utah Constitution, and not prohibited by law."
While sitting in Salt Lake City (the county seat), the court is restricted to adjudication of actions involving real property located within Salt Lake County, those in which the defendant resides in Salt Lake County, and those involving incidents occurring in Salt Lake County. Nevertheless, a change of venue may be requested. The court clerk is responsible for maintaining the case files for actions arising in Salt Lake County.
Upon its creation, the third district court in and for Salt Lake County was given the ability to issue the same writs as the supreme court as well as appellate and supervisory power over the inferior courts within the county. The powers held by the territorial probate court in Salt Lake County (#959) were transferred to the third district court. The duty to summarily hear and dispose of election-related controversies within the county was assigned to the district court. District court judges are authorized to perform marriages.
District court judges in Salt Lake County hear a variety of cases. Domestic relations casesdivorces, separations, child custody, and support payment collection mattersare an important part of the court's workload. The court determines probate matters, adoptions, and name changes, naturalizes aliens, settles estates, and holds hearings to establish mental incompetency for involuntary commitment. Civil matters involving large sums of money are adjudicated exclusively in the district court. Responsibility for cases involving minimal monetary claims was reassigned to the newly created small claims departments of inferior courts in 1933.
Criminal trials for felonies, serious crimes punishable by incarceration in prison, are held only in district court. The district courts' exclusive jurisdiction in polygamy cases was eliminated in 1921. Limited criminal jurisdiction was granted in 1925 to city and justice courts in cities where the population was over 5,000. This jurisdiction was limited to petit larceny, assault and battery when not charged as a felony, breeches of the peace, committing a wilful injury to property, and all misdemeanors punishable by a fine of less than $300.00 and/or six months imprisonment. District court judges were empowered to call a grand jury until 1990 when this function was transferred to a statewide panel of five district court judges appointed by the presiding officer of the Judicial Council.
Jurisdiction in matters involving children age 18 and younger, including parents and legal guardians of juvenile delinquents, was originally held by the district courts. The legislature in 1905 passed legislation to establish a juvenile court system statewide. Because only cities with a population over 5,000 initially were required to establish juvenile courts, the legislation provided that a juvenile department of the district court be established to hear juvenile cases. When the juvenile courts became fully operational in 1907, these departments were abolished. Concurrent jurisdiction in felony cases was given to the district court and the juvenile court.
As first constituted, the court was empowered to hear appeals to decisions rendered in cases in which justice courts, city courts, and, later, circuit courts in the county held original jurisdiction. Included were violations of city and town ordinances as well as minor traffic laws. Between 1977 and 1992 the district court was required to maintain a tax division with exclusive jurisdiction to all appeals from and petitions for review of decisions by the state tax commission rendered after formal hearings before the commission. The judge of the tax division of the third district was given the added responsibility to sit by designation in the tax division of a district court outside Salt Lake County should an appeal be brought.
The appellate jurisdiction of the district courts has been greatly limited through constitutional amendment and recent legislative action. Following voter approval of the revised judicial article in 1984, lawmakers in 1986 passed legislation to created a new appellate court. The legislation transferred the district court's appellate jurisdiction from inferior courts and tribunals to the newly created Court of Appeals (#1670) and relieved the district court of supervisory control over inferior courts. The Utah Administrative Procedure Act of 1987 provides for judicial review of informal adjudicative proceedings from administrative agencies to be made by the district court.
The change in appellate procedure has had a profound effect on the types of cases heard by the district court. As noted in the 1992 annual report of the state courts, the district court now hears a greater percentage of domestic and tort cases and fewer cases involving property rights and criminal matters.
All appeals to third district court decisions were made to the Supreme Court until 1987. Since then, appeals to third district court decisions in domestic relations cases, criminal matters of less than a first degree or capital felony, and civil cases transferred by the Supreme Court have gone to the Court of Appeals.
At its inception, the third district court in and for Salt Lake County was administered by the district judges and the county clerk. The third district court at large (Agency #275) was given statutory authority to make rules for its own government and the government of its officers. The judges in the third district selected one of their colleagues to act as presiding judge. Any disagreement that could not be resolved by the judges of the district was to be referred to the Supreme Court. The county clerk was to provide the clerical staff and services needed by the court. Available to each judge were a court clerk, a bailiff, and a court reporter who maintained a record of all court proceedings and prepared transcripts of cases on appeal. Physical facilities and equipment were also to be furnished and maintained by the county.
Under administrative procedures in place since at least 1977, the presiding judge is being assisted in managing the various administrative functions and activities of the court district-wide by a trial court executive, a professional level administrator who supervises the work of all nonjudicial court staff and serves as the administrative officer of the entire district. Mental health commissioners (attorneys acting as quasi-judicial officers having judicial authority) appointed by the court are also available to assist in conducting commitment proceedings in Salt Lake County as are court commissioners who assist judges by conducting pretrial hearings, pursuing settlements, and making recommendations in domestic relations cases.
A move toward centralized administration for district courts statewide began in 1967 when the legislature provided for Supreme Court (Agency #868) personnel to act as a court administrator and an assignment justice for the district courts. A state-managed administrative system for the district, city, and justice courts was created in 1973 with passage of the Court Administrator Act. Legislative action in 1988 made provision for the state to assume full financial and administrative responsibility for district courts in counties electing to participate in the state court system. Designated a primary location, the court in Salt Lake County came under the state umbrella in 1989. Relieving the counties of their administrative responsibility for the district courts necessitated that the constitutional designation of the county clerk as ex-officio court clerk be repealed. Provision was made for a court clerk for the entire district, whose office is in Salt Lake City.
Originally embraced by Utah territory's first judicial district (1850-1856) and third judicial district (1856-1896), Salt Lake County became part of the third judicial district established at statehood by the newly adopted constitution. Although reapportionment of the state's judicial districts by the legislature has changed the make up of the third district at various times, Salt Lake County has remained a part of the third district since statehood.
The district court supervised inferior courts within the county from 1896 until 1986. Legislation to consolidate the third district and third circuit courts was passed in 1991. Under the present statute this consolidation is scheduled to be finalized between January 1, 1996, and July 1, 1998.
COMPILED BY: W. Glen Fairclough, Jr., March 1994
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Page Last Updated July 2, 2003.