United States Court District of Utah Judge David Nuffer delivers a presentation to the Grand County Council on reshaping the southern federal court system that sends most cases arising out of southern Utah to be heard in Salt Lake City or St. George. [Photo by John Hales / Moab Sun News]

Federal civil and criminal cases originating in southern Utah may be litigated in Moab as soon as this year, as opposed to Salt Lake City or St. George, as government officials move forward with a plan to reshape the federal court system.

A presentation on the proposed Southern Division of the United States Federal Court was heard on April 17 before the Grand County Council. Chief Judge David Nuffer of the Southern Region of the United States District Court spoke to the council. He handles all federal civil cases in the southern region, and in 2019, will be assigned all criminal cases.

“Where we hold court matters to the people,” Nuffer said.

Cases originating in Grand, San Juan, and Emery counties are heard in Salt Lake City. A proposal moves the federal court from Salt Lake City to St. George, with Nuffer presiding over the first civil cases held there starting in May.

“Would it make a difference to people?” Nuffer asked the county council.

Grand County Council Member Greg Halliday said, “It’s 100 miles further [from Moab] to St. George than it is to Salt Lake.”

Nuffer asked council whether people in Grand County would like to have federal court in Moab. Several council members remarked that St. George is further away than Salt Lake City. Nuffer asked the public to give comments on the suggestion.

“We’re going to take a new look at this side of the state,” Nuffer said. He later said, “I understand the flights (at Canyonlands Field Airport) only go to Denver.”

In the weeks since Nuffer’s meeting with Grand County Council members, Nuffer corresponded with the Moab Sun News via email.

“We understand, as a result of our visit, the great inconvenience to [Grand County] residents in traveling to St. George or Salt Lake,” Nuffer wrote.

He further stated, “Our current intentions are to designate southern region cases originating in Grand and San Juan counties to be heard in Moab.”

To do so, Nuffer said a change of legislation is required.

“It does literally take an act of Congress,” Nuffer told the Grand County Council.

Nuffer is in discussion with U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch’s office to try to get legislation moving.

“We hope it could be done this year,” Nuffer said.

Under the plan to move federal court hearings and trials to Moab, the U.S. Marshals must be able to house federal prisoners in the Grand County Jail. A contract with the jail would require approval by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Or, inmates would be transported from another federal holding facility to Moab for their court appearances, Nuffer said.

Information provided by the federal court system on the number of cases from each county during the five years between 2012 and 2016 places Grand County with the third highest number of federal criminal cases, out of 13 southern counties. Grand County is fifth in the number of civil suits, and shows up sixth for bankruptcy cases.

Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald said that he has represented cases in federal court, mainly bankruptcy cases.

He noted a kind of meeting in bankruptcies — not a formal court hearing, but a meeting of creditors that is required by the court. He said those meetings can be as short as 10 or 15 minutes, “but it requires people from our region to go up there [to Salt Lake City].”

Several hours of travel by plaintiffs and defendants and their lawyers is costly.

“It’s just another thing that makes living in Moab so much more expensive,” Fitzgerald said.

Nuffer pointed out that the travel is also costly and time-consuming for witnesses and jury members who must travel to Salt Lake City, or now St. George, for hearings and trials.

The federal court does have a presence in Grand County, but it’s limited. A magistrate judge travels to Moab about five times every year, and space is provided in a courtesy arrangement with local courts.

But, that means only those court proceedings that can be handled by a magistrate can be heard in Moab.

The United States District Court of Utah invites the public to comment on the plan for the federal court system in southern Utah and related issues. People interested in doing so should email their comments to southernutahplan@utd.uscourts.gov.

Act of Congress needed to reshape court system

“Our current intentions are to designate southern region cases originating in Grand and San Juan counties to be heard in Moab.” – Judge David Nuffer