Attorney at Law Magazine Salt Lake City Publisher John Marciano sat down with Justice Christine Durham to discuss her career.
AALM: What do you love about your job?
Durham: I have been lucky enough to have the best job in the world – Justice of the Utah Supreme Court – for 33 years. Sitting on a court of last resort enables me to indulge my passions for the law and for learning in equal measure. Every month, interesting cases from every domain of human experience and legal concern land on my desk. I have committed lawyers, bright and hard-working law clerks, and brilliant colleagues to help me figure out how to respond, and to educate me about what I need to know to get it right. What I do matters, and the variety is endless.
For 10 years of my service – from 2002-2012 – I had the opportunity to serve as chief justice, who in our state essentially is the CEO of the third branch of government. This institutional responsibility taught me a great deal about the role of courts in a democracy, and what is required to render them independent and well-managed so that they can play their role as guardians of the rule of law. The connection between well-run and effective judicial systems and the fundamental needs of society for access to justice and for fair and impartial judges is very strong. During my tenure as chief we had to weather the effects of the Great Recession on court funding. Because of our strong governance model and commitment to court reform, we emerged with our ability to do the public’s business actually improved.
AALM: Describe your style in the courtroom?
Durham: I think it’s fair to describe my style in oral argument as prepared and probing. To the extent possible, every lawyer arguing before us should expect aggravating questions aimed at the weakest part of his or her case. There are different philosophies on this, but I see oral argument as the court’s time, not the lawyers’. We need to understand as well as we can what is going on in a case, and to put to rest concerns we may have about what we have read in briefs and the record. I confess that I can get carried away in the back and forth sometimes, and try to remind myself before we take the bench to be kind.
AALM: Are there any changes in the legal community that you are excited about?
Durham: I think there is a great deal of energy these days focused on new ways of practicing law and meeting our professional obligations to serve the public as well as to make a living. Utah is working very hard on providing support for new lawyers by way of mentors and training programs. There are court and bar-led projects to expand pro bono services in civil cases, and I see an increasing understanding that far too many people suffer far too much from the unavailability of legal help in the hard places in their lives. The crisis in the cost of legal education in the context of a declining market is forcing many valuable conversations about better ways to do things. There is a lot of change going on – it’s unsettling but I am hopeful that lawyers (who are after all problem-solvers) will help lead the way to better times.
AALM: What do you do in your spare time?
Durham: I am pretty boring in my spare time. It is devoted to keeping up with grandchildren, travel and reading (I love history, contemporary and historical fiction, poetry and well-written mysteries, preferably British). My husband and I enjoy being empty nesters, and take every chance we can to visit favorite places. Paris is first on the list – I lived there as a teenager and love everything about it. I still enjoy work too much to think about retirement, but some day I need to figure out a way to become a Parisian, at least part-time. I also take great joy in the activities of my five children and their spouses.
AALM: Who are your legal heroes?
Durham: I can’t name a single legal hero – there are too many to look up to. I deeply admire lawyers and judges who have had the courage to identify unfairness and injustice and to challenge it in the face of public hostility and apathy. The people who challenged racial injustice in this country in the last century and who still fight to eradicate it are heroes. The people who took on suffrage and gender discrimination are heroes. The people who defend individual liberties, vindicate the rights of people with disabilities and other social minorities, and work to fight the effects of poverty in our legal system – these people are all heroes to me. I meet judges and lawyers every day who are doing heroic work in their own spheres to contribute to the sum total of fairness and justice in the world.
AALM: What do you miss about being a lawyer?
Durham: I haven’t been a lawyer for a long time, but I still miss the close bonds forged in my days of lawyering. I like lawyers a lot – I like the ways their minds work, the way they use language, the perspective they have on solving problems. So the thing I guess I miss most about not being a lawyer is the distance my job creates; there are too few opportunities to engage socially with lawyers and to form new friendships. I also enjoyed politics when I was a lawyer – something off limits for a judge. There was no such thing as billable hours when I was practicing law – but from what I hear, I don’t regret those!