The Three Women On The Utah Supreme Court Talk Diversity, Partisanship and Ethics

On a rainy afternoon in Salt Lake City, most people aren’t thinking about the state of Utah’s court system, the role judges play in that system or how diversity on a bench improves the decision-making process. No, most people are probably thinking about how the rain is going to turn I-15 into a parking lot during the afternoon commute. But, in an intimate dining room in downtown Salt Lake City, dozens gathered to hear the three women currently sitting on the Utah Supreme Court share their thoughts on the former. 

Judge Gregory Orme, who sits on the Utah Court of Appeals, moderated the event held at the Alta Club on Tuesday, which hosts regular “City Club Encounters” as an opportunity for its members to hear from not just the Justices, but local leaders like Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Mayor Erin Mendenhall. Judge Orme, who is also a club member, kicked off the Justices’ presentation with some context: there have been only 50 sitting justices in the history of the Utah Supreme Court; of those 50, five have been women; of those five women, “three are in this room.”

Diversity on the bench

It follows that one of the first questions asked of Justice Paige Petersen, Justice Diana Hagen and Justice Jill Pohlman was about diversity on the bench—does making a diverse bench (gender, race, background, etc.) enrich the courts’ decision making process?

“Yes,” says Justice Hagen without hesitation. “The questions you ask and the way you approach argument and analysis…have a lot to do with what your background is.” And, it stands to reason, if all of the judges on a bench have the same background, the questions will be much the same and the less “push back” and fewer “holes” can be poked in one another’s arguments and analysis. Even having a diversity of experience is helpful, if one member of the bench has a civil law background and another a criminal law background, for instance. “The more complex a legal issue, the more minds you want to bring to bear on the issue,” says Justice Hagen. 

That said, Justice Hagen recognized that the Utah Bar is not terribly diverse. The population of Utah’s law schools is, but many of those studying the law are not staying and practicing it in Utah. It’s something, she says, the Bar is trying to change—to let those law students know that there is a place for them in Utah to practice. 

Partisan politics in the courts

All three justices are adamant about what the role of judges is and what it is not. And, it is not to play partisan politics—something that might be hard to swallow, given the divisive political climate and actions and words of judges, either elected or appointed, across the nation. In the Justices’ confirmation hearings in the Utah State Senate, they say they had to remind legislators (even the ones who were attorneys) that “we are not political idealogues.”

Justice Pohlman remembers one legislator became particularly frustrated when “I wouldn’t tell him what I thought on a certain political matter.” She says, “I have views…but my personal views don’t matter. It was very hard for him to accept that I take my oath seriously.”

Justice Petersen explains, “We don’t always like the results of cases. But we are supposed to apply the law fairly…and consistently. We have to always apply the law the same.”

But, according to the Utah Courts, a new law passed during the last legislative session and signed by the governor, could put the courts’ fairness—and lack of political partisanship—at risk. Part of what makes Utah’s court system great, the Justices explain, is its merit-based judicial selection process. It works like this: Judges apply for openings on a bench, the judicial nominating commission in that judicial district conducts interviews and makes five–seven (depending on the court) recommendations to the Governor, the Governor nominates who they think is best for the job and the Utah State Senate confirms the nomination. 

Up until recently (before the new law) the requirements for a judicial nominating commission were:

  • Each commissioner must be a U.S. citizen, a resident of Utah and a resident of the judicial district it is representing. 
  • Commissioners may not be a member of the Legislature.
  • No more than four commissioners may be from the same political party. 
  • The Governor must appoint two commissioners from a list of nominees provided by the Utah State Bar. However, the Governor may not appoint more than four persons who are members of the Utah State Bar.

Before the new law, the Judicial Council also chose an eighth member of the commission to give feedback or guidance but not vote on recommendations. Those requirements serve as “guardrails” to prevent partisan judges and politics in the courtroom that we might see in other states on the news—for many, the recent judicial election in Michigan might come to mind. (“If I had to be elected as a judge, I never would have been a judge,” says Justice Pohlman.) 

Now, with the new law in place, those requirements for judicial nominating commissions—those “guardrails”—are gone. The Utah Bar also opposed the bill, saying it consolidates “all power to appoint nominating commissions in the Governor” and calling it “in contravention of established best practices.” 

Still, the fact remains that Utah’s Constitution states, “Selection of judges shall be based solely upon consideration of fitness for office without regard to any partisan political consideration.” And that gives the Justices some hope. 

“In Utah, we try to keep our judiciary out of politics,” says Justice Petersen. “I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to make the selection of judges based on merit.”

An ethical judiciary

Another big news headline involving the judiciary—in this case, the nation’s highest court—directed conversation on Tuesday. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is under scrutiny for possibly breaking the law when he did not disclose high-value gifts—including yearly luxury trips on a private jet and superyacht and purchasing a home for his mother-in-law—from GOP mega-donor Harlan Crow.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices on the Utah Supreme Court have a judicial code of ethics to which they adhere. “Accidentally violating one of those rules is the stuff of nightmares,” says Justice Petersen. While the code allows for the acceptance of gifts in some circumstances, “We all err on the side of not getting close to the line,” says  Petersen.

Meet the Justices of the Utah Supreme Court

Utah Supreme Court Justice Justice Paige Petersen
Utah Supreme Court Justice Paige Petersen

Justice Paige Petersen

Justice Paige Petersen was appointed to the Utah Supreme court in December 2017 by Governor Gary Herbert. Before joining the Supreme Court, she was a district court judge in the Third Judicial District, which serves Salt Lake, Summit, and Tooele counties. Justice Petersen graduated summa cum laude from the University of Utah in 1995, after first obtaining an associate’s degree from the College of Eastern Utah in Price. She received her law degree from Yale Law School in 1999. Petersen then prosecuted war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands, where she was a member of the trial team responsible for successfully prosecuting the former Serbian Chief of Police for ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Kosovo. She then returned to Utah and joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City, where she prosecuted violent crimes for three years before taking the bench.

Justice Petersen says of her time as a court judge, “I had no idea how hard it was to be a judge before that.” (That came after her time prosecuting on a war crime tribunal at The Hague.) She says her journey to the bench can be tracked through her hairstyle, which had to be “toned down” from the big ‘80s hair she rocked in rural Price, Utah when she went to the U of U and yet again at Yale Law School. 

Utah Supreme Court Justice Diana Hagen
Utah Supreme Court Justice Diana Hagen

Justice Diana Hagen

Justice Diana Hagen was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court in March 2022 by Governor Spencer J. Cox. Prior to her appointment, Justice Hagen served on the Utah Court of Appeals for nearly five years. She received her law degree Order of the Coif from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1998, where she was a member of the National Moot Court Team and the Utah Law review editorial board.  She has been recognized with a Utah Philanthropy Day Heart & Hands Award in 2014 for her volunteer work with Girl Scouts of Utah, was named the S.J. Quinney College of Laws 2015 Alumna of the Year, and received the FBA Utah Chapters Distinguished Service Award in 2017. Justice Hagen currently chairs the Judicial Branch Education Committee and serves as the appellate judge designee for the Utah Sentencing Commission.

Justice Hagen says she “applied for the appellate court eight times” before she got the job. Before that, she was recommended for a job in the U.S. Attorney’s Office because “you can write, and I know you can argue.”

Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill M. Pohlman
Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill M. Pohlman

Justice Jill Pohlman

Justice Jill M. Pohlman was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court in June 2022 by Governor Spencer J. Cox. At the time, she was serving as Associate Presiding Judge on the Utah Court of Appeals. Judge Pohlman graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Utah in 1993 and received her Juris Doctorate from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah in 1996, where she served on the Utah Law Review and graduated Order of the Coif.  Justice Pohlman currently sits on the Judicial Councils Committee on Judicial Outreach and has previously served on several committees, including the Utah Supreme Courts Advisory Committee on the Rules of Appellate Procedure, the Utah Supreme Courts Ethics and Discipline Committee, and the Utah Supreme Court’s Diversion Committee.

Justice Pohlman says, by 4th grade “I knew I was going to be a lawyer, and I knew I was going to be a judge.” By 6th grade, she was making the other kids in her class “play The People’s Court during recess.”

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Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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