Linda M. Jones, Freyja R. Johnson, and Larissa Lee, J.
It was September 1981 when Christine Meaders Durham got the call. “Are you ready to make history with me again?” Governor Scott Matheson had been the first to appoint a woman to serve on a Utah court of general jurisdiction, and he would be the first to appoint a woman to serve as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court. Durham was thirty-six years old, and she had served as a district court judge for three years. To some, she may have seemed too young or to have had too little in-court experience. But she had the intellect and drive, and the time was right. With five young children at home and an energetic and supportive partner in her husband, Dr. George Durham, the woman who would become the first female justice of the Utah Supreme Court did not limit herself and was willing to take on opportunities as they arose. After an early career path that Durham would describe as accidental and fragmented, her course had come into sharp focus. She did not hesitate. She was ready.
Durham was used to being first. She was born in Los Angeles, the first of three children. When she was eleven, her family moved from Southern California to Washington D.C. for her father’s work with the Internal Revenue Service. The family later moved to France where her father served as an attaché to the Paris Embassy for the U.S. Treasury Department. Durham completed her prep school education in American and French schools in Paris and then returned to the States to attend Wellesley College. She met George Durham, who was attending Harvard, and they married during Christmas break her senior year. Durham began law school at Boston University while George completed his studies shortly after their first child, Jennifer, was born. The family transferred to Arizona State University so that George could teach to earn money for medical school. From there, they packed the car for North Carolina where the Durhams had been accepted at Duke University to attend law school and medical school.
The Durhams spent the next few years juggling schedules, studies, and work, as they raised their family, completed their degrees, and pursued careers. After the birth of Meghan, their second daughter, and law school graduation, Durham was surprised to learn that most firms in the Raleigh-Durham area were not interested in interviewing women lawyers. In a series of part-time stints that would characterize Durham’s early career, she taught a course in law and medicine at Duke University Medical Center, served as a research associate in the Department of Community Health Sciences, drafted legislation, authored handbooks for programs, and opened her own office to represent indigent criminal defendants and parties in personal injury and domestic relations cases.
When George accepted a residency in pediatrics with the University of Utah Hospital in 1973, Durham closed her North Carolina office and drove with her family cross country to their new home. Upon arriving in Salt Lake City, Durham encountered more challenges: an attorney confided that he would not interview a woman for an opening at a law firm, and the bar deemed her ineligible to take the exam because of a six-month residency requirement. Not wishing to start off on the wrong foot by suing the bar over the unconstitutional residency requirement, Durham decided to put her law degree to use with more part-time work. She taught courses at the J. Reuben Clark Law School and the University of Utah Medical Center, contracted with the Utah Attorney General’s Office to write appellate briefs, and worked for the board of the Odyssey House. Six months later – and shortly after the Durhams’ son, George, was born – she passed the bar, joined Johnson Parsons & Kruse, and began practicing securities and white collar litigation in federal court.
women were somewhat of a novelty in the Utah legal community,
Durham endured micro-insults, unintended slights, and an
attitude of dismissiveness while she worked to build her
reputation and practice. Attorneys and judges expressed shock
and surprise at seeing her handle a case or an argument; a
judge asked her if women lawyers had bladders, suggesting she
had taken too long in examining a witness; and when she won a
case, the judge remarked that she had done a nice job
“for a woman lawyer.” In contrast to this
treatment, there was a notable exception in Norm Johnson, a
mentor and senior partner at the firm. Norm was one of
Durham’s first supporters and defenders. He wanted her
to succeed. Within a couple of years after Durham joined the
firm, she gave birth to another daughter, Melinda, and became
a named partner of the firm, Johnson Durham & Moxley.
Shortly after that, Norm encouraged Durham to submit a
“letter of interest” for an appointment to the
district court. In 1978, Governor Matheson called to appoint
Durham to the bench for the first time. She was just
thirty-two years old. Although three women had preceded
Durham with judicial appointments,
Durham credits her ability to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves to her husband, George. He was her “secret weapon.” He was successful in his own career and would become chief of the medical staff at Primary Children’s Medical Center. When the Durhams welcomed their four-year-old nephew, Isaac, into the family, George was instrumental in keeping the five children on task and the household running smoothly. He went part-time with his practice to keep their lives balanced, which was particularly important to Durham as the work on the district court proved to be exhilarating and demanding.
Durham recalls that in the late 70s and early 80s, the district courts functioned as independent units. The system was fragmented and locally funded. There was little or no interest in court management or administration, no training or orientation, no judicial education, no bench books for new judges, and no collaboration among the district court judges. Durham found a mentor in Judge David Winder, who accompanied her to the state capitol to take the judicial oath in the chief’s chambers, took her to lunch, offered assistance, and provided his handwritten notes on a legal pad for jury voir dire. Those early experiences ignited Durham’s passion for judicial education and continuing professional education. In addition, Durham’s work ethic earned her the respect of fellow judges and she became the presiding judge of the Third District Court and the president of the Utah District Judges Association.
Three years later, Chief Justice Maughan began making the case to the legislature and the bar for the creation of the court of appeals. The caseload for the justices on the Utah Supreme Court was crushing, with 700–800 new filings every year. Without an intermediate appellate court, the delays continued to build. In addition, two justices had retired from the court, one in 1979 and one in 1980, paving the way for change. Durham applied for a position, but she was not appointed.
Durham believed that in time, the legislature would consider the need for an intermediate appellate court. Suddenly and tragically, however, Chief Justice Maughan died from cancer. A few days later, while Durham was attending the viewing and funeral, Governor Matheson approached her and asked her to apply for appointment to the Utah Supreme Court. Shortly thereafter, Judge Durham submitted her application. When the governor called the second time, Durham was overjoyed. But the transition presented unique challenges. That same week, a district court judge had declared unconstitutional a statute that gave the senate authority to nominate and confirm judicial appointments. The governor considered the statute to violate the separation of powers provision and sued for declaratory judgment. After the district court struck it down, the legislature appealed. Under the circumstances, Durham was unable to officially take her seat on the court. Ever resourceful, the other justices offered a solution: they invited her to sit on cases as a substitute justice until her confirmation. Durham agreed to take on the extra work. At the time, the court was hearing thirty cases a month. Durham was not given a clerk to help with the supreme court caseload because she was not a justice, she did not get a break in her case assignments on the district court, and she was forced to drive back and forth between the district court and state capitol to hear cases.
When she finally took her place on the court in February 1982, she loved everything about it: the rulemaking, the research, the writing, and the collegiality. For Justice...