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After A Trailblazing Legal Career, Justice Christine Durham Hangs Up Her Robe

Julia Ritchey
Justice Christine Durham retired this month after nearly 40 years on the bench. She served as the first female justice on the Utah Supreme Court.

Christine Durham, the first woman to serve on Utah’s Supreme Court, retired last week after nearly 40 years on the bench. Durham is credited with breaking barriers for women throughout her judicial career. She spoke with KUER on the eve of her retirement about the pressure she faced as a young judge and legacy she leaves behind. 

Below are excerpts of that conversation. 

Q: What was the climate like for women you when you went to law school?

Durham: Well it was a very lonely undertaking. At the point when I graduated from law school in 1971, about 98 percent of the legal profession was still male. And even in law school, although that was starting to change in the late 60s early 70s, there were very few women. And in some settings they weren't completely welcome.  At my law school, a very fine law school, there were no women on the faculty and no women in the administration. And a total...of maybe 10 to 12 women when I first got there, so it was kind of lonely.

Q: It was 1978, I believe, that you were tapped to become the state's first female judge on a court of general jurisdiction. What was the reaction to that like at the time?

Durham: A lot of publicity and a lot of questions about who I was and what I was doing there. ...But I remember the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court called me after I'd been there about six months to invite me to come and sit on the Supreme Court. In those days, there was no intermediate court. So when they had they had someone who was not able to sit, they'd call up a trial judge.

And when he invited me he said, 'I'm pleased that you're coming. I think it will be the first time that a woman has ever been on our bench with us. And I hope you won't bring your reporter friends.' And I said, 'First of all, they're not my friends. I don't control what they write.'

And he said, 'Well, you're right. I guess all the publicity is to be expected it's a little bit like the old story of the dog that walks on its hind legs.' And I didn't know this story so I ended the conversation, went out and asked my court clerk. My court clerk blanched and said, 'Oh, Judge.' That story is as follows. How is a woman preacher like a dog that walks on its hind legs? And the punchline is, it's not that she does it well, it's just so surprising that she does it at all.

...So this was the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court at the time. So that was kind of part of the mixture of reactions that I experienced.

Q: And just a few years later, you were selected to become the first woman on the Utah Supreme Court in 1982. Then you served as chief justice from 2002 to 2012. Did you always consider yourself a trailblazer... or did you know at the time every move you made in your career was being watched and was being scrutinized?

It was very clear to me that I better work very hard and be as good as I could possibly be because if I fell on my face, it wasn't just going to be my failure, but it was going to close doors and opportunities for people who were coming along the ladder behind me.

Durham: That might be a slight overstatement. But but I really was aware of the degree of scrutiny to which my career and my performance was subjected. It was very clear to me that I better work very hard and be as good as I could possibly be because if I fell on my face, it wasn't just going to be my failure, but it was going to close doors and opportunities for people who were coming along the ladder behind me.

Q: I wanted to ask you when things didn't go your way on the court or you had to be the lone dissenter. Is there some sort of freedom in writing an opinion that is different from the rest of the court, versus when you were writing for the majority?

Durham: You're absolutely right in suggesting that there is, in fact, freedom in writing a dissent because when you're writing for the majority, you are not writing just for yourself, you're writing for all the people whose votes you need -- and that can be very constraining. They may not want to go as far as you want to go. Whereas when you're writing a dissent, it's your own voice you can express your views. You don't have to edit those views.

So it's too bad for the result of course but dissents perform many functions and not uncommonly. They give future litigants ideas for directions that they can take the law in that might not otherwise have occurred to them. And so dissents, even though they're written by losers in the strict sense, can also be very useful. And you hope will do some good.

Q: You stated a preference that you would like your replacement to be a woman and now we have Judge Paige Peterson who was just confirmed to the the Supreme Court. Obviously, you're very pleased with that. But I wonder if eventually we might see an all female bench, and if that something that you would actually want to see?

Durham: I will quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg who when asked 'Look, there are three women on the United States Supreme Court. When will that be enough for you?' She said, 'When there are nine.' And I would love to see an all female bench in it. It's not a pipe dream. The intermediate court of appeals is now majority female in Utah for the first time in its history. It would startle a lot of people, I think. But I see absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be the case.

Q: And in your lifetime?

Durham: Why not? You know, people think, 'Ohm that would be startling.' Nobody's been startled by 100 plus years of all male benches. Why would an all female bench be startling at all?

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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