Utah’s first female Supreme Court justice steps down

November 24, 2017
Justice Justice Christine Durham speaks during an interview at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. After 35 years as a Supreme Court justice — she’s the first woman in the state to hold such an appointment — the 72-year-old retired this week. (Scott Sommerdorf/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Christine Durham has spent her life working.

Whether it was juggling odd jobs as a young woman trying to make it as a lawyer in the 1970s, or balancing her duties as a Utah Supreme Court justice, Durham spent her entire adult life with a planned — and often overflowing — schedule.

Until now.

After 35 years as a Supreme Court justice — she’s the first woman in the state to hold such an appointment — the 72-year-old retired this month.

So, what is she going to do now?

Durham says she hasn’t quite decided. She’s decided to take a few months off, to think about her life and what she wants to do. She’s interested in access-to-justice issues, she said. Maybe she’ll do something there.

“It actually feels really liberating,” Durham said of her empty schedule. “I have loved my life in the law. I have loved being a judge. And I think I have had some of the most wonderful opportunities anyone can imagine, but it has always come with an established agenda of expectations. For the first time, I’m not going to have that.”


Durham hasn’t had much time this week to reflect on her career as this chapter of her life closes. She’s been busy — the justices needed to vote on all the cases she was a part of before she left. She cast her last vote on a case at 5 p.m. Nov. 15, her last official day as a justice.

But among her proudest accomplishments, of course, was being appointed Utah’s first woman to serve as a judge in a court of general jurisdiction (several women at that point had already served on circuit and juvenile courts in Utah) and then as the state’s first female Supreme Court justice.

It “was just amazing,” she said, smiling. “Just extraordinary in every respect.”

Then there was her role in helping create the National Association of Women Judges, and in organizing Women Lawyers of Utah.

During her time on the bench, she also helped unify a fragmented judicial system in Utah. And after receiving nothing more than a robe and a case file when she first became a trial judge, Durham focused her energy on creating educational material for judges and others who work in the courts.

“I look back and I just see so many examples of times when I got lucky,” she said, “and was in the right place in the right time to be engaged in some really important efforts.”


Durham knew from a very young age that she wanted to work outside the home. By the time she got to college, she had an interest in the law.

Sitting on the library steps one September evening in 1963 in Massachusetts, 18-year-old Christine Meaders discussed her hopes and dreams with her future husband, George Durham. Even then, George Durham said, she knew she wanted to study law. Maybe someday she’d be a judge.

“I believed her,” the husband recalled at her retirement ceremony last week.

Christine Durham said he was the only man she ever dated who encouraged her ambitions. He’s her “secret weapon,” she said, someone who supported her career as a lawyer while pursuing his own practice as a pediatrician — all as they raised five children.

Through their lives, Durham said, she and her husband would sit down and figure out “the juggling act,” and they would take turns working part- and full time while taking care of things at home. Not all of her neighbors or fellow church members agreed with this setup, Durham said, but she didn’t care. It worked for them.

“My husband and I always felt confident we were doing the right thing for ourselves and our family,” she said. “We were completely on the same page.”

And Durham’s path to judgeship was not an easy one. A fresh law school graduate, Durham found that law firms weren’t interested in hiring women.

So she opened her own law office in North Carolina.

In 1973, the Durhams moved across the country, to Utah, after her husband accepted a pediatrician residency at the University of Utah hospital.

Durham was the 72nd woman to be accepted into the Utah State Bar. Here, she continued to work as a lawyer and became a partner in a law firm.

In 1978, Gov. Scott Matheson appointed her as a district court judge, which she would be for four years.

In 1982, she became the first woman appointed to the Utah Supreme Court.

And in 2002, she checked off another milestone: first woman to become chief justice of Utah’s highest court. She held the position for 10 years.


Durham led the way for other female jurists in Utah, and she’s mentored other women who came after her. Nearly 75 of those female judges recently signed a letter to the editor published in the Utah Bar Journal, thanking her for her work. Her accomplishments, they wrote, have made their own possible.

For now-federal Judge Jill Parrish, just seeing Durham’s name on a list of judges when she was a second-year law student was an assurance that she could someday do the same. It wouldn’t be until decades later that she would get the chance to work alongside Durham as a fellow Utah Supreme Court justice.

Parrish recalled at Durham’s retirement ceremony last week that her friend was always a patient, diligent and genuine person.

“Justice Durham is one of the most organized, hard-working people I know,” Parrish said. “Either that, or she’s magic.”

But Durham’s influence went further than the fellow women she worked with. Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said that he, too, is among those who have been inspired by Durham. No one has done more for Utah’s judicial branch than her, Durrant said — male or female.

She’s confident, Durrant said, but not arrogant. Strong in her views but eager to hear an opposing opinion. She’s intelligent and has integrity.

“We will always count it as one of the greatest privileges,” he said, “and honors of our lives to have served with Justice Christine Durham.”

The now-retired justice said she had two mentors who were instrumental in her success: Norm Johnson, who was her senior partner in her Utah law firm and encouraged her to apply to be a district court judge, and Matheson, who twice made history with her as he appointed her to a district court judge and later to Utah’s high court.

“He took such a chance on me,” she said. “And I’ll always be grateful to him for that. It wouldn’t have happened without him.”

But while many young lawyers, especially women, aspire to have careers like Durham, she said she didn’t have a similar icon when she was that age. There simply were no women around in her profession, she said.

“A lot of my role models were my contemporaries,” she said. “Other women who were like me, who were figuring it out as we went along.”


Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com