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Prestigious honor

Utah Supreme Court Justice helps people 'be law abiding'
Published: Saturday, Dec. 22, 2007

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As a college freshman, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine M. Durham had not identified a career path. She had no attorneys in her family and had not contemplated studying law. Still, a Boston stake patriarch gave her a simple promise during a sacred blessing: she would be instrumental in "teaching the people to be law abiding," he told her.

Photo courtesy Utah Supreme Court
United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts presents the 2007 William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence to Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine M. Durham at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Today — after serving 25 years as a member of the Utah Supreme Court, five of those as chief justice — she has contemplated that blessing. Although she subscribes to the "accidental theory of career development," in which good people choose from opportunities before them and do their best, it is hard for her to think her life's course was "coincidental."

Recently awarded one of the most prestigious judicial honors in the United States for her work in judicial education, among other things, Sister Durham of the Monument Park 20th Ward, Salt Lake Monument Park North Stake, has spent the last almost 30 years developing interactive education programs in the areas of domestic violence and scientific evidence.

Truly, she has influenced millions — not only in Utah, but also across the nation — to be law abiding.

For those efforts she was honored on Nov. 15 with the 2007 William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence by the National Center for State Courts. The award is presented annually to a state court judge who exemplifies the highest level of judicial excellence, integrity, fairness, and professional ethics. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts presented the award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

"Chief Justice Durham has demonstrated her commitment to public service, judicial education, and the cause of justice throughout her 25 years on the Utah Supreme Court," said Chief Justice Roberts in a press release.

National Center for State Courts President Mary C. McQueen said the nominating committee selected Chief Justice Durham because of her "innovative leadership style and her contributions to advancing judicial branch education not only in Utah, but nationally."

During a Church News interview in her office, Sister Durham said seeing the things she has worked hard to accomplish impact change in the judicial system is "enormously rewarding."

"When I first became a judge 30 years ago it was very little understood that judges would need continuing professional education," she said. "Of course, the truth is that 30 years ago I don't think there was widespread insight into the fact that adults are lifelong learners and that all professionals need professional development and opportunities to learn and grow."

And, she said, if you think about the difficult questions the judicial system has examined in the last 30 years — both highly technical questions from the explosion of genetic research, as well as questions dealing with social outcomes and social standards — there has never been a time in history when judicial education was needed more.

"Judges come from highly trained legal backgrounds, but one of the things I have always loved about my job is I think the average judge sees something brand new every day," she said.

Even after almost 30 years on the bench, cases still come to her that she does not know the answer to, that "the answer has not been definitively located and articulated."

Because of that, Sister Durham said as an appellate judge she sees herself to some extent as an adult learner. "When I am approaching a case, the first task I have is to learn everything I can about the case, about its history and its facts and its procedural stance, then about the law that affects the questions in it. That is where I often tell lawyers who appear before the court that they really are functioning as teachers."

She first witnessed the courts' ability to impact change as a student at Wellesley College in Boston, Mass., during the 1960s. She was deeply influenced by the work attorneys were doing in the Civil Rights Movement. She was drawn to the law because of its dependence upon the use of language, persuasion and non-violence to accomplish change.

"It kind of dawned on me gradually that (law) was something I wanted to do," she said. "It is really hard to identify how I knew, I just knew it was what I wanted."

Sister Durham noted that she was not the ordinary law school student. One of only a few women studying law at that time, she was also married and gave birth to two of four children before completing law school. And when she doubted her decision to attend law school while raising small children, she prayed and sought counsel from a wise bishop.

With her husband, George Durham, she said, "We had, for no apparent reason, the attitude that we could do anything we set our minds to do."

And she has. She was the first woman to be appointed to the Utah District bench. She was the first woman appointed to the Utah Supreme Courts and she is the only woman to be elected chief justice by her fellow justices. Today, she is the highest ranking Church member currently serving in the United States judiciary system.

Still, she said, it is her husband — who served as a bishop and at one point in his career cut back on his work hours so his wife could focus on her career — four children, and the nephew who lived with her family for 15 years that are the center of what she sees as being "my most important work in the world."

Sometimes she speaks with her husband about "private and personal spiritual things." Among other things, they talk about the stake patriarch she had never met, who promised her as an 18-year-old freshman that she would perform a usefulness in "teaching the people to be law abiding."

E-mail to: sarah@desnews.com