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Draper Journal

Two firsts in Draper’s court: First female judge and her first time behind the bench

Mar 30, 2023 01:22PM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

“I’ve been super impressed at the experience that these women have,” Judge Lisa Garner said. The all-women Justice Court staff has nearly 70 years combined experience. Pictured L-R are Lisa Sutton, Jaci Walker, Kellie Anderson, Judge Lisa Garner, Stephanie Evans and Jonna Crump. (Courtesy Jonna Crump)

A judge must consider carefully, form an evaluation (often quickly), and decide authoritatively. Draper’s new judge Lisa Garner adds compassion to that equation. 

Garner is the first female behind the bench in Draper’s Justice Court and it’s her first time serving as a judge, but she has 25 years accumulated experience in the legal profession. She replaced Daniel Bertch who retired in 2022 after serving the city for 30 years.

Mayor Troy Walker, an attorney himself, has encountered Garner in courtrooms. “She has a broad background. She’s seen and done just about everything in the law. She’s well respected and everyone said tremendous things about her. I’ve worked with her before on cases and have had the pleasure of her being fair and decent,” Walker said.

Garner is a graduate of the University of Utah and BYU Law School. She has worked as a paralegal, a public defender, in the private sector doing criminal defense, and in civil practice doing title insurance, real estate and contract law. Most recently, she served as City Attorney/City Prosecutor for Midvale.

Once a single mom, Garner worked for a period of time in private practice for better pay, but her varied experience clarified what she ultimately wanted to do. “When I worked at Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, it was very confirming that I wanted to be a public servant. My heart has always been in public service,” she said. 

Through the years, Garner has seen examples of the type of judge she does not want to be and the kind of judge she aspires to be. “I have seen all sides and it makes me realize, in the end, we want the same thing: To be respected, heard and treated impartially when we find ourselves in the justice system,” she said. 

Her approach comes from recognizing the humanity in each person who appears before her. “They’re someone’s son or daughter, and I think how would I want someone to treat my husband or my child if they were in this situation?” She strives to balance that respect with a consideration for all parties involved and a need to protect the community she serves. She’s seen defendants leave a courtroom feeling good, even if the outcome was adverse to their interest, knowing they were treated respectfully, impartially and heard. 

She shows compassion while donning her judicial robe, even when cases come before her in rapid succession. She greets each person appearing before her with a “good afternoon” or a “how are you?,” frequently thanking them and wishing them a good day after she’s rendered her decision. “Thank you for being forthcoming and taking responsibility,” she said to a traffic court defendant. 

She can also be uncompromising and direct when she feels it’s necessary. “I’m proud of you for getting your GED. That’s excellent. That will help you when you get out. But you will do your children no good if you’re still using when you get back to them,” she told a man who struggles with addiction who appeared before her via video conference from jail. 

She shows flexibility when it comes to court fine due dates. Garner asks the defendant how much time they think they need to pay a fine, then frequently gives them a couple months beyond the date they asked for. “If you need more time, I’m happy to give it to you,” she told a young defendant. 

Even with 25 years of experience in law, she said there’s a learning curve in her new job. “I really enjoy it. I love interacting with people…but I was surprised at how difficult it is to…play a different role.” She admits it can sometimes be hard to render a decision. “The most difficult are the domestic violence cases…It’s so complicated, there are so many emotions…and they’re higher stakes. You don’t want to put anyone in danger,” she said.

The city council voted March 7 to approve a contract to share Garner with Herriman City in a 65%, 35% split. Under the agreement, Draper will front the cost and Herriman will pay 35% of Garner’s salary and benefits to Draper. “It’s pretty common among cities to do it. Most of us are not full-time courts. It’s beneficial to both cities,” explained City Attorney Mike Barker. 

She will serve in Herriman Mondays and Wednesdays and in Draper Tuesdays and Thursdays, alternating Fridays. “There’s a provision in the contract to reconcile every year and consider if that split should be adjusted,” Barker said.  

Garner is supported by a staff of all women who have nearly 70 years combined experience. “We have a tremendous support staff and that kind of longevity is unheard of. I don’t think anyone else in the state would have those total years of experience. They work well together, complement one another, and all of them have the ability to do whatever is needed,” she said.

Garner draws inspiration from her family and she hopes the people appearing before her also have someone who cares for and about them and their success. 

“The gratifying part is when I can treat someone who’s not used to being treated kindly or respectfully…I try to make them feel that they’re not defined in my eyes by the choices they’ve made. I try to figure out how to help that person succeed so they’re not in court again,” she said. “That’s my goal.”