DISTRICT COURT (FIFTH DISTRICT: WASHINGTON COUNTY)
Agency History #1682
CREATION AND MISSION: At statehood (1896) district courts were established to provide for the equitable distribution of justice and to keep domestic peace (Utah State Constitution, Article VIII, section 21). Divisions of the district courts were established in each county to comply 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 (Article VIII, section 5). The establishment of divisions of the district courts in each county at statehood distinguishes state district courts from territorial district courts. Washington County was assigned to fifth district, and was designated as a trial court of general jurisdiction (Article VIII, section 7).
FUNCTIONS: 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 Saint George (the county seat of Washington County), the court is restricted to adjudication of actions involving real property located in Washington County, actions involving defendants who live in Washington County, and actions involving incidents occurring in Washington County. The court clerk is responsible to maintain the case files for actions arising in Washington County.
Upon its creation, Fifth District Court in and for Washington County was given the ability to issue the same writs as the supreme court. It was given supervisory power over the inferior courts within the county. District court judges were authorized to solemnize marriages, and the court was assigned the responsibility to hear and dispose of election related controversies within the county. All powers previously held by the territorial Washington County Probate Court were transferred to the Fifth District Court, as were powers held by the territorial district courts as they related to Washington County. During the territorial period, Washington County was in 1st and 2nd districts.
District court judges hear a variety of cases. Domestic relations cases include divorces, separations, child custody, and support payment collection matters. The court has jurisdiction over probate matters, adoptions, and name changes. It 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. In 1905, the legislature established a statewide juvenile court system to hold jurisdiction in matters involving children age 18 and younger. Originally, the district court was also responsible for juvenile cases.
The district courts were originally given exclusive jurisdiction over serious crimes which would be punishable by incarceration in prison. District court judges were authorized 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. Originally, the court heard appeals to decisions rendered in justice courts, city courts, and later, circuit courts. Appeals included 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 over all issues involving the state tax commission.
Recent constitutional amendments and legislative action have greatly limited the appellate jurisdiction of the district courts. The legislature created a new appellate court in 1986, and transferred the district court's appellate jurisdiction from inferior courts and tribunals to the newly created Court of Appeals, thus relieving the district court of supervisory control over inferior courts. The change in appellate procedure has had a profound effect on the types of cases heard by the district courts. As noted in the 1992 annual report of the state courts, the district courts now hear more tort and domestic cases and fewer cases involving property rights and criminal matters.
All appeals to Fifth District Court decisions were made to the Supreme Court until 1987. Since then, appeals 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.
ADMINISTRATION: At its inception, the Fifth District Court in Washington County was administered by a single district judge and the county clerk. Fifth District Court at large was given statutory authority to make rules for its own government and that of its officers. A second judge was added to the Fifth District court bench in 1991, which required that one judge preside. Any disagreement that cannot be resolved by the judges of the district is referred to the Supreme Court.
Traditionally, the county clerk provided the clerical staff and services needed by the court, including a court clerk, a bailiff, and a court reporter who maintained a record of all court proceedings and prepared transcripts of cases on appeal. The county maintained physical facilities and equipment. Currently, the presiding judge is assisted by a trial court executive, who is a professional administrator. He supervises the work of all non-judicial court staff and serves as the administrative officer for the entire district.
Judges may appoint court commissioners (attorneys acting as quasi-judicial officers having judicial authority) to assist in various cases. Mental health commissioners are available to assist in conducting commitment proceedings. Court commissioners assist judges by conducting pretrial hearings, pursuing settlements, and making recommendations in domestic relations cases.
The move toward centralized administration for district courts began in 1967 when the legislature provided for Supreme Court personnel to act as court administrators for the district courts. A state-managed system for the district, city, and justice courts was created in 1973 by the Court Administrator Act. In 1988 the legislature 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. In 1989 Saint George was designated as a primary district court location, and the court in Washington County came under the state umbrella. Because the counties were relieved of their administrative responsibility for the district courts, the county clerk is no longer involved in district court, but a court clerk serves the entire district.
ORGANIZATIONAL HISTORY: During the territorial period, Washington County was assigned to Second District Court, with the exception of a brief period, 1859 to 1862, when the county was assigned to the first district. In 1896 Washington County became part of the fifth judicial district established by the newly adopted constitution. Washington County has remained a part of the fifth district since statehood. Originally, the district court supervised inferior courts within the county. The legislature consolidated the Fifth District with fifth district circuit courts in 1991. (Laws of Utah, 1991, chapter 268).
COMPILED BY: Compiled by W. Glen Fairclough, Jr., January 1995
COMPILED BY: Edited by Rosemary Cundiff, December 2000
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Page Last Updated July 2, 2003.