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Utah Lawmakers Stall On Confirming Appointment To Court Of Appeals

A photo of the Scott Matheson Courthouse.
Brian Albers
Gov. Gary Herbert has appointed Margaret Plane to the state Court of Appeals. But time is running out for the state Senate to confirm her.

In Utah, it takes about six months for a judicial nominating commission to vet, interview and narrow down candidates for court vacancies.

Kim Cordova, who is tasked with staffing the nominating commission, said the job is too important not to be thorough.

“We have to know good, bad, ugly, everything, the positives and negatives,” Cordova said. “We want to make sure that the very best candidates are selected for judicial appointment.”

Enter Margaret Plane. She was one of seven people Gov. Gary Herbert interviewed for the court of appeals — out of around 30 who applied.

Herbert appointed her in November, and the state Senate is constitutionally required to consider the candidate. But that’s where she’s stuck in the process.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, chairs the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee. He said he personally believes Plane is qualified — and he would vote for her — but he said other senators are worried about her lack of experience as a judge and because she hasn’t worked in the private sector.

Additionally, Weiler said they’ve received public comment that has been critical of her.

“No one is interested in a public humiliation for a future judge,” he said. “One senator told me a month ago they were concerned if we put her on the agenda, that we'd have 30 people lined up outside the door to testify against her.”

Cordova said the nominating commission didn’t receive any negative feedback. She also said Plane’s experiences would bring a diversity of thought to the bench.

She currently serves as special counsel for Park City Municipal Corporation. She was previously the city attorney for Salt Lake City under two mayors and has also worked as the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

In 2017, she was on the short list to fill a vacancy on the Utah State Supreme Court.

Kim Neville, president of the Women Lawyers of Utah, said Plane has a lot of qualities she would want in a judge.

“[Plane] has been known in our bar, in our community, as someone who was fair, who was firm in her position, but also willing to hear the other side of an issue,” Neville said. “We want people who are open minded, who would treat the litigants with respect. I think she'd make an excellent judge, and I'm sure there are many people who would as well.”

More than anything, though, Cordova said the best candidate at least deserves a hearing.

“Could you imagine achieving a position that you've worked your entire career for, and then saying you can't have it, with no reason?” she said. “I don't want to lose the face of Margaret Plane and what this has done to her as a human being.”

The Senate has until early January to confirm Plane. Weiler said he hopes there’s a hearing by the end of the year, but it depends on what Senate leadership decides.

“It was pretty abundantly clear to me that she didn't have the support to get confirmed,” Weiler said. “So we've been working on trying to change that.”

If the appointment isn’t confirmed in time, Cordova said the process will start over — and the court vacancy potentially won’t be filled until June. With a backlog of cases due to the coronavirus pandemic, she said an empty seat on the bench will further delay court hearings.

Plane declined to comment for this story.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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