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As quoted in Pro Publica, he said to no one in particular in the courtroom, “It pops up in a machine in some administrative office, and is somebody there with a duty to take it around and give it to whoever it’s named to?”
Email may be a difficult concept for many older people, but this particular judge had at one time competently presided over cases involving an investment banker and the information contained in a single email. Now he acted as if he had never heard of such a thing.
But was he suddenly incompetent, or merely having a bad day? And if we make it too easy to remove someone who is losing it, do we provide another tool in the never-ending blood sport that is politics?
I’ve encountered politicians who are nutty enough when competent that it would be hard to tell the difference.
That said, the anecdotal evidence surrounding Ott is becoming overwhelming. So are the suggestions his close aides are covering for him, and perhaps even taking advantage of him financially.
But we have to be careful not to make the cure for this problem worse than the problem, itself.
Judges make life-or-death decisions. County recorders preside.
Sure, their offices record real estate transactions, liens, leases, mortgage transactions and subdivision plats, but the recorder has a competent staff to do all that. Ott presides, and if things are working well, you hardly need to be conscious to preside (insert a joke about your boss here).
We elect recorders because all those duties I just mentioned have to be a step removed from political influences. An appointed recorder might be pressured by a politically connected boss to fudge a record. An independently elected one gets to answer all by himself for what gets recorded.
Which is a problem, of course, if he can’t answer simple questions posed by a Deseret News reporter.
Utah law can’t help here. It contains no provision for removing someone who is incapacitated.
On the one hand, this is an indication of how rare such problems are. If the state has gone 121 years without having to confront such a challenge, do we really need to over-react to one highly publicized, agonizing example?
But on the other hand, who doesn’t know someone with dementia?
The Alzheimer’s Association reports someone acquires that degenerative brain disease every 66 seconds in this country, and Alzheimer’s is just one of several diseases that affect memory and cognitive skills. And while deaths from heart disease are down 14 percent since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s are up 89 percent.
The tricky intersection between competency and dementia seems destined to become more crowded and difficult to maneuver in the future.
So what is the remedy?
State lawmakers tried to find one during the 2017 session. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, sponsored a bill that would have allowed someone to be removed from office for mental incapacity through a petition signed by a percentage of voters, a unanimous vote from a “local legislative body” and a ruling in a state district court.
The bill never advanced. At a hearing, it was opposed by advocates for the disabled, as well as the Utah Association of Counties.
The problem is, people might use such a process either to destroy the reputation of a politician or to remove that person for political reasons. Determining competency is no simple thing. It’s hard enough when it plays out within the private confines of a family.
Which is where Ott’s case ultimately belongs. His brother and sister have begun court proceedings to obtain guardianship. That may be the most logical and humane end game.
Meanwhile, we may be indeed grateful Ott isn’t a judge, or a governor or mayor.
That doesn’t mean such a thing won’t happen some day. It does mean we should take the time to craft a safe remedy.
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Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist of the Deseret News. He has 32 years experience as a reporter, editor and editorial writer in Oklahoma, New York City, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. He also has been an adjunct journalism professor at Brigham Young and Weber State universities.