The first woman to be a trial judge in Utah is retiring after decades of service

Posted at 4:51 PM, Sep 15, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY -- Justice Christine Durham has broken a lot of glass ceilings.

She was the first woman to be appointed as a state trial court judge in Utah back in 1978. She was the first woman appointed to the Utah Supreme Court in 1982 and served as chief justice from 2002 to 2012.

"I think I can claim the title of trailblazer not through any individual merit, but because of my timing," she said in an interview with FOX 13.

Friday marked one of her final public appearances as a Utah Supreme Court Justice before she retires in November. Justice Durham participated in the Utah State Courts' celebration of Constitution Day, speaking to school children about the evolution of the nation's founding document.

Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham speaks at the Constitution Day celebration. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Justice Durham noted that until the early 20th century, she and any other female in the room would not have been allowed to vote. She held up a pocket-sized Constitution and urged the students to read it.

"You could read it in less time than it takes you to keep up with your Facebook and Instragram," she joked.

Justice Durham said when she started as a judge 39 years ago, she faced skepticism about whether a woman could do the job.

"As is typical with people who are the first, you have a higher bar to meet," she said. "You've got to try to be better."

Justice Durham also faced sexism.

"It was hard to avoid in those days," she said.

Asked if she thinks it still exists, she replied: "Yes, I do."

A photo of Justice Christine Durham shortly after she was appointed a judge in Utah. (Photo courtesy Utah State Archives)

As she prepares to retire, Justice Durham said she would like to see another woman take her place on the state's top court.

"Absolutely! There are so many qualified women for this position," she said. "Frankly, in this era, to have the highest court in Utah have no gender diversity would be a sad thing."

Right now, there are four men on the Utah Supreme Court. Justice Jill Parrish left after she was appointed by President Obama to be a federal judge.

At his monthly news conference on Thursday, Governor Gary Herbert would not commit to appointing another woman to the Utah Supreme Court.

"I don't ever pick someone based on their gender or ethnicity," the governor said. "I pick the best person possible to serve on the bench."

The governor pointed out that he has appointed more women to the Utah Court of Appeals. For the first time ever, the state's appellate court has a majority female bench.

The governor's office said it was already looking at potential replacements for Justice Durham. In retirement, she said she plans to give herself a "sabbatical."

Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham in an interview with FOX 13's Ben Winslow. (Image by Eric Weseman, FOX 13 News)

"I'm proud of the decisions I have worked on. The opinions I have written," she said. "The degree I have contributed to the development of the courts as an institution and a strong third branch of government."

One of the rulings she is most proud of was a tax case -- it withheld perceived automatic tax exemptions from a healthcare company unless it actually made a charitable contribution to the community.

"We took away an incentive for them not to do the right thing," she said. "We created an incentive for them to do the right thing."

Justice Durham said more people have access to the courts now -- but worried the biggest barrier is cost. She also worried about funding treatment options for people as Utah's criminal justice system undergoes an initiative that has focused less on incarceration and more on rehabilitation.

"We have come to see ourselves in the justice system as being much more than just processing cases," she said. "We really understand the degree to which we have an impact on people's lives and we try to do a good job with that."