Chief Justice Christine M. Durham: trailblazer, pioneer, exemplar.

Author:cummings, andre douglas pond
Position:Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke Sixth Annual State Constitutional Commentary Symposium: The State of State Courts - Testimonial

In 1978, Christine M. Durham was appointed, in a historic moment, to serve as trial judge to the third judicial district court in the state of Utah by then Governor Scott Matheson. (1) Lost in the appropriate fanfare connected to her groundbreaking appointment as the first woman to serve as a general jurisdiction judge in the state of Utah, was the fact that she would also become the youngest person ever appointed to a judicial post in that great state. (2) Just four years later, this young thirty-something female judge would be elevated by Matheson to sit on the Supreme Court of the State of Utah, marking the first time that a woman had ever been selected to sit on Utah's highest court. (3) In truth, at that time, Justice Durham joined just a tiny cadre of female jurists that had been elected or appointed to sit on their state's highest courts. (4) It wasn't until 1981 that Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to sit on the United States Supreme Court as the first female member of that Court. (5) Thus, as one of "the firsts," Justice Durham embarked upon a remarkable career that has for more than thirty years represented trails blazed, spaces pioneered, and extraordinary examples imparted.

Trails Blazed

As most individuals called upon to be "the first" will describe, the scrutiny that accompanies the endeavor of trailblazing can be suffocating. (6) Certainly, in the early Supreme Court years, Justice Durham felt the eyes of the state upon her as she offered her first opinions, asked her initial questions at oral argument, and delivered talks around the state and country to groups that often invited her to provide wisdom and encouragement. (7)

The "first" woman or the "first" person of color is often examined by those that make up the status quo with suspicion or even contempt. (8) Critics will search immediately for signs that a trailblazer is not up to the task or is in over her head. (9) For a judge, this searching inquiry often includes scrutinization of every word written and delivered in judicial opinions, examination of every question posed to litigants before a court, careful assessment of rulings read or advice provided from the bench to parties before it, and even probing inquiry into the private life maneuverings of a particular trailblazer. (10) Robert Weiner, former law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall who was the first African American to ever be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, stated when asked about Justice Marshall as a trailblazer: "The first is that it is not easy to be a pioneer in the fight for equality. To be the first woman or the first African-American, to set sail all alone in a sea of hostility, requires a level of courage that few can sustain." (11)

Justice Durham, despite this early scrutiny, proved to be a prescient appointment by Governor Matheson, as she conducted her responsibilities and delivered her opinions with intelligence, grace, and aplomb. Critics were left grasping as Justice Durham easily brushed off criticism, held firm to her judicial philosophy and approach, and worked relentlessly to find collegial spaces and avenues to perform her work on a Court filled exclusively with male colleagues (until the 2003 appointment of Justice Jill N. Parrish to the Utah Supreme Court). (12)

When Byron White retired from the United States Supreme Court in 1993, President Bill Clinton was confident that the time had arrived to appoint the second woman ever to join the Supreme Court. (13) Justice Christine Durham, as trailblazer, had long evidenced the kind of judicial skill that President Clinton was searching for in the role of U.S. Supreme Court judge. (14) Though the appointment eventually ended up going to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Durham was vetted, interviewed and placed on the Supreme Court "short list" for appointment to the highest bench in the nation. (15) Of course, through the "short list" process and attendant media flurry, Justice Durham was confident, humble, self deprecating, and willing to serve if called upon.

As a trailblazer, the first women ever to sit on the Utah Supreme Court and one of the first women ever to sit on any state's highest court, Justice Durham set sail all alone in a sea of hostility and navigated a career that has been astonishingly successful, winning her admirers across the nation and world. Indeed, Justice Durham exhibited and continues to exhibit a courage that few can sustain.

Spaces Pioneered

As a jurist, Justice Christine Durham is probably most well known for pioneering two important conceptualizations amongst the many critical endeavors and issues she has championed. The first is that Justice Durham has been an advocate for women's rights and the rights of minority citizens from the start of her legal career. (16) The second is that Justice Durham has underscored and established the importance of state constitutional rights from the very early days of her career as a Utah Supreme Court Justice. (17)

While unfailingly fair and even-handed from the bench, Justice Durham has been outspoken throughout her storied career in her support of women and their need to find equal opportunity in the United States. Justice Durham was forthright early in her career as a jurist, repeatedly citing the lack of female lawyers and judges throughout the state of Utah and the nation. In 1987, just a few years after being elevated to the Utah Supreme Court, Justice Durham remarked in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor "Five percent of state and federal judges are women. This is pretty pitiful. My case is an anomaly." (18)

Justice Durham did not just speak out about equality and justice, she actively worked for and continues to advocate for equal opportunity for women and minorities. After nearly thirty years as a Supreme Court judge, Justice Durham has hired upwards of sixty individuals to work for her as law clerks and office staff. Dozens of her former clerks and staff are women and women of color. They hail from across the United States and are, like Justice Durham herself, bright, affable, driven, conscientious, and thoughtful. Justice Durham has spoken to hundreds of women's...

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