SALT LAKE CITY — The confirmation hearing for Judge Diana Hagen to the Utah Supreme Court had some emotional moments as senators peppered her with questions about her role in the judiciary and her work on dating violence prevention.
"There is always more to learn," Judge Hagen said in her opening statement to the Utah State Senate's Judicial Confirmation Committee. "But that is precisely why I love my job and it is why I hope you will see fit to recommend my confirmation to the Supreme Court."
Judge Hagen, who currently serves on the Utah Court of Appeals, described moving to California with dreams of becoming a movie star. When that didn't work out, she got into speech and then learned about the First Amendment, which made her interested in law.
"OK, I’ll get married, I’ll go on my honeymoon and I’ll take the LSAT the day after I get home from my honeymoon. What, like it’s hard?" she said to laughter from the crowd in the committee room, referencing the movie "Legally Blonde."
Judge Hagen says she almost dropped out of law school, but stuck with it. She became a First Amendment lawyer, then a federal prosecutor (she was among those who prosecuted Elizabeth Smart's kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell). In the audience supporting her nomination were newly sworn-in U.S. Attorney for Utah Trina Higgins, Utah Supreme Court Justice Paige Petersen and members of the Utah Court of Appeals.
"What can you bring that gives the public confidence and trust?" Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, asked.
"The judges who are appointed to the Utah bench are extremely well qualified and they also are held to very high ethical standards," Judge Hagen responded.
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, brought up the recent leak of a draft opinion on abortion at the U.S. Supreme Court.
"If this sort of a leak happened on the Utah Supreme Court, what would you think? What would be your response?" he asked her.
"It would be extremely disturbing to me if a draft opinion was leaked and I also think, of course, it undermines public confidence in just the integrity of the institution," Judge Hagen responded, explaining the deliberation process and that a draft opinion does change over time.
When Sen. Cullimore asked about confidentiality in other branches of government, Judge Hagen acknowledged the need for it but also referenced her work on the First Amendment and public records laws, defending the need for government transparency.
"I certainly understand the important First Amendment issues of making sure the public is informed and they have a right to know what their institutions are doing," she said. "But yes, of course, there are certain deliberations that are set out in our law, in GRAMA, that are exempt and generally for public policy reasons... and that needs to be respected as well."
After a series of questions, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, became emotional as he spoke about Judge Hagen being a role model, signaling his support for her nomination.
"You will serve an important function as a role model for a lot of these young women," he said.
That was not the only emotional moment in the hearing. Asked about her advocacy work on dating violence prevention, Judge Hagen disclosed that as a teenager, she had been a victim of such violence.
"For three years, every time I tried to terminate the relationship, there was violence, there were threats, there were death threats and it was terrifying," she told the committee. "I felt literally like I was being held hostage in a relationship. I was afraid to tell my parents. I was afraid to tell people at school because he told me that if I did that I couldn’t hide. He’d find me on the streets and use his dad’s gun to shoot me."
Judge Hagen said she did eventually leave and now advocates for dating violence prevention education "to help other kids know what resources they had and most importantly to know there really are people who can protect, that they really can be safe."
Judge Hagen will face another round of questions next week before a vote is taken to advance her nomination to the full Utah State Senate. But Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who chairs the committee, said he did not anticipate she faces any problems with confirmation to the state's top court.
"I think she’s an outstanding nominee and... my guess is, she’ll get overwhelming support," he said afterward.
Sen. Weiler told FOX 13 News he is considering running a bill to add more justices to the Utah Supreme Court, increasing it from five members now to seven in the future. He argued that it only takes three votes to decide some very weighty issues facing the state of Utah.
"I wouldn’t see it as court packing," he said. "But if you think about it, if our state had five justices when we were less than a million people and we have five when we’re 3.3 million people, the question is that the right number?"
Such a bill could be introduced in the 2023 legislative session.