New district court judge takes the bench

Judge Westfall of the 5th District Court, St. George, Utah, May 20, 2014 | Photo by T.S. Romney, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Judge G. Michael Westfall has taken the bench in the 5th District Court in St. George, the same city in which he started his judgeship career in a lower court in 1998. He succeeds retired Judge James Shumate, who has presided over cases in 5th District for 23 years and oversaw such high-profile cases as the Warren Jeffs trial, participated as a founding member of the county’s Drug Court program, and decided countless cases.

Of Shumate, Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap said: “Over his career, Judge Shumate has changed the lives of thousands of people for the better. He was an excellent judge who respected both the law and the people who came into his courtroom. He will be missed.”

Westfall was appointed to the 5th District Court in August 2003 by then-Gov. Michael O. Leavitt. He has primarily served in Iron and Beaver counties.  A 1981 graduate of J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, Westfall started in Washington County as small claims judge pro tempore from 1998 to 2003, when he was appointed district court judge.

“Judge Westfall is smart, thoughtful and protective of the people’s rights,” Belnap said. “He expects the lawyers appearing in front of him to be prepared and thorough. We’re pleased to welcome him to Washington County.”

“The primary reason I wanted to be a judge was so I could be the one making the decisions instead of living with someone else’s decisions,” Westfall said. “I had practiced law for about 20 years and was not happy with some decisions, so I decided to put myself in the position to make the decisions.”

“Shumate was very family oriented, and he laid the responsibility on the people who were in court,” Tiffany Mower, victims services coordinator for eastern Washington County, said. “Westfall is very thorough. He makes sure those in his courtroom truly understand what they’re committing to when they take deals or when they plea it out.”

Westfall started off as a practicing attorney in St George, where he said he did a little of everything except prosecution.

“Towards the end of my career as an attorney I did a lot of domestic work,” he said. “I really enjoyed the courtroom. I liked getting ready for trials, trying cases. I like presenting evidence and cross-examining witnesses. It was challenging and exciting for me.”

Westfall said he enjoyed Cedar City and felt it was a lot like St. George when he first started practicing. Now, he enjoys being back in St. George, but it’s becoming a little more metropolitan, he said, and with that comes a greater volume of cases.

“There is not much difference in terms of the kind of cases I hear,” Westfall said, comparing St. George to his most recent bench in Cedar City. “There is a greater volume and, because of that volume, there are different nuances in the cases.”

Reflecting on case law of note, Westfall said that Marbury v. Madison was one of the most influential cases: “It established the Supreme Court ultimately decides whether legislative action is constitutional or not,” he said. “I know there are still people in the executive and legislative branch that believe they should be the one to determine constitutionality.”

Westfall said what he enjoys most in his spare time is going to his kids’ sporting events, hiking and jogging. He used to dance a lot, he said, but has not been able to lately.

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