A Tribute to Justice Durham


Taken from Pat Christensen’s Speech given at the WLU Fireside- April 24, 2012

Tonight, as we prepare to hear again from our beloved mentor and friend, Justice Christine Durham, on this 30th anniversary of the founding of Women Lawyers of Utah, and the 30th anniversary of her appointment to the Utah Supreme Court, we wanted to take a few moments to remember our shared history and pay tribute to this remarkable woman, who was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing WLU into existence, and who has waged such a brilliant and single-minded campaign to obtain and maintain equal opportunity for women lawyers and judges in Utah and around the country.

At this point in her career Justice Durham has received virtually every important award and recognition there is in the country for jurists, and we know we can’t top those.  On the other hand, her relationship with WLU as an organization, and with Utah’s women lawyers and judges individually, is very personal- almost maternal.  We are a very real part of her abundant legacy. Utah’s women lawyers are able to be who we are, and do what we are able to do both professionally and personally in large part because Justice Durham has used the full measure of her own personal position and prestige to insist on it every day for the last 35 years.   Permit me to recap a few of the highlights of that history:

Justice Durham, her husband, Dr. George Durham, and her two oldest daughters, moved to Utah in June 1973, after they graduated from Duke University in Law and Medicine, respectively.   The bar exam was given in July and February as it still is, and, at the time there was a rule requiring residence in the State of Utah for 6 months before being eligible to take the bar exam.  Now she had learned in the first year of law school that such a requirement was probably unconstitutional, but decided that it wouldn’t be a very good idea to begin her legal career in Utah by suing the Bar.  So she had to figure out what to do without a law license for six months until she could take the Bar Exam in February 1974.

She was pregnant with her third child, who was due in November, so she pieced together a number of different things.  Through contacts from Duke, she was introduced to Rex Lee, the founding dean of the new law school at BYU, and began teaching legal research and writing to first-year law students, teaching a course in Law and Medicine, and working with the law review.  She also did contract work writing appellate brief for the Attorney General’s office, she volunteered for the Board of Odyssey House and did their legal work on a pro bono basis, she had her third child- a boy, and studied for the Bar.

She then took the Bar Exam in February and began practicing law part-time with Norm Johnson’s securities firm, while continuing to teach as an adjunct at BYU law school. In an interview in 2009, she said she had about 6 part-time jobs during that period, and it used to make her crazy.

It was during this period that Justice Durham began to campaign for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.   Her long-time friend Aileen Clyde, who is here with us tonight to help us honor Justice Durham, told me “she couldn’t remember exactly when she first knew Justice Durham, but it is clear in her memory when she first noticed her and began to recognize her abilities to articulate important values and matters of current importance-” it was when she heard her speak affirmatively on the Equal Rights Amendment while teaching a course in Sex Discrimination and the Law at BYU law school, [using a textbook written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg].

Aileen recalled that the Utah Legislators changed their position from affirming the ERA to opposing it, after the LDS Church leaders said they supported equal rights, but not the ERA.  She said “Justice Durham’s  logical, balanced analysis of the amendment was convincing, but fears and emotions won in the end and Aileen became watchful after that for any opportunity to observe Justice Durham’s career, cheering when she became the first women appointed to a general jurisdiction trial court in Utah history in 1978, at the age of 32, and then to the Utah Supreme Court 4 years late in 1982.

Justice Durham had a keen understanding of the historic significance of her appointment to the general jurisdiction trial court bench in 1978,  and, again, to the Utah Supreme Court in 1982, which Governor Scott Matheson emphasized to her at the time of her appointment; and she was very aware that “if she screwed it up,” in her words, “she wouldn’t just be screwing it up for herself, but would be creating a negative impression and negative expectations for all the other women coming behind her.”

It was during her years on the District Court bench, where she received a “chilly reception” from the older male members of the court, by whom she was repeatedly bullied, “and with whom she was never once invited to lunch” that Justice Durham developed her passion for judicial education, continuing professional education for judges, and judicial administration, began working with national organizations of judges, and began to organize the National Association of Women Judges in 1979 and Women Lawyers of Utah in 1982. She also obviously earned the respect of her colleagues on the bench, becoming the Presiding Judge of the Third District Court, and the President of the Utah District Judges Association.

Along with Judge Judith Whitman of the Juvenile Court, Judge Eleanor Lewis of the Circuit Court, and Jan Graham (who later became Utah Attorney General), Justice Durham began to get women lawyers organized, believing that there was leverage to be had in getting women working together around their shared professional objective of eliminating discrimination.  At first there was ambivalence from women who were working hard to be accepted as “lawyers,” and were reluctant to be considered “women lawyers,” but “with three women on the bench, and Jan’s energy,” she says, they were finally able to persuade a majority of the women lawyers to organize; and they were subsequently successful in electing two women to the Bar Commission – Judge Anne Stirba and Judge Pamela Greenwood, who was subsequently elected the first woman President of the Utah State Bar the same year she was appointed to the new Utah Court of Appeals upon its creation in 1987.

During that period, Justice Durham worked hand in hand with Women Lawyers, helping to conduct workshops for aspiring women judges, meeting with WLU leadership, and helping to map out the agenda for the organization.  One of WLU’s early Presidents shared the fact that she called Justice Durham after being elected and asked for her advice on where the organization should be focusing its energy and attention, and Justice Durham had lunch with her and shared her thoughts and ideas, which became the agenda for the organization.

She has also graciously agreed to join us every year for these wonderful “Fireside Chats” during which she shares whatever is on her mind or in her heart.  Over the years, the topics have ranged from her concerns for the negative reception women refuges were receiving from our government when they tried to escape extreme forms of discrimination, domination and even mutilation in the developing world and seek asylum in the United States, to a recent Harvard University study of gender bias in the 21st Century.

One of the most important things she did, through the National Association of Women Judges, of which she was a founder and long-time President, however, was the development of the protocol and funding for the Gender and Justice Task Force in the 1980s.   Through NAWJ, she personally arranged for a grant to fund Utah’s Task Force on Gender and Justice, although the Chief Justice, at the time, refused to appoint her to the task force, claiming that she would be a “ringer.” Fortunately for all of us, though, her good friend Aileen Clyde was appointed to Chair the Utah Task Force on Gender and Justice, along with Justice Zimmerman, and under Aileen’s  leadership, in collaboration with Justice Durham, I’m sure, the Task Force completed its work and issued a comprehensive report and recommendations on gender discrimination in the law and in the courts in 1988, which Women Lawyers of Utah then undertook to help Justice Durham and the Court implement.

Meanwhile, Justice Durham was also working with the Governor’s Task Force on Implementation of the Revised Judicial Article to the Utah Constitution, which resulted in the creation of the Utah Court of Appeals, and brought all of the disparate courts in Utah under the umbrella of the Utah Judicial Council, which could and did develop judicial education programs, and professional development criteria for Utah’s Judges, which were critical to the implementation of the recommendations of the Gender and Justice Task Force in the courts.

To say that the next two decades of her career were busy doesn’t begin to describe it.   The list of national boards she chaired and judicial education institutes she organized and lead is simply too long to recite.   Suffice it to say that she has held every major national position for state court judges, and founded many of them. Throughout it all, she has distinguished herself, and she has received every award there is for judges, including the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence in 2007, for her ground-breaking work on judicial education and state court administration.

And through it all, she has continued to be an ever-present mentor to WLU and Utah’s women lawyers. When interviewed for WLU’s Utah Women Trailblazers recognition a year or so ago, she was asked to share her favorite memory of being a woman lawyer.  She told the story of her appearance before former Chief Judge Willis Ritter of the United States District Court for the District of Utah, in a sex discrimination case in her early days in practice, at which time Judge Ritter asked her if “this is a g___ d___ bra-burning women’s libber case,” to which she simply answered, “YES!”

More recently, when she was asked by WLU to serve on the Advisory Committee for the Initiative on the Advancement and Retention of Women in Law Firms, she graciously accepted; and her involvement and endorsement of that important project gave it instant credibility, allowing WLU to recruit leading members of the legal community, the President of the Utah State Bar, and the deans of both Utah law schools, to join the Advisory Committee with her.  Justice Durham then facilitated WLU’s communications with the Advisory Board Members, by calling meetings of the Board, encouraging members’ attendance and participation, and hosting the meetings in the Court’s Conference Room.

Justice Durham’s support for the Initiative did not stop with the planning stages, however.  She gave the opening remarks at the First Symposium in May 2009, emphasizing the importance of advancement and retention issues, and she wrote the Foreward to the Final Report, published in October 2010, encouraging Utah law firms to enact an action plan to improve on the advancement and retention of women lawyers in law firms.

Justice Durham has continued the conversation about retention issues through her speaking engagements at numerous functions, including the dinner honoring the First 100 Women Lawyers put on by WLU in May 2011, at which she stressed the problem of implicit gender bias, and candidly shared that despite her “feminist tendencies,” even her score reflected a slight bias in favor of males in the work place!

During this amazing public and very visible professional career at both the national and local level, however, Justice Durham has never lost sight of the individual women around her, and has taken the time to mentor each and every one of us.  When I reached out to women lawyers across the state a month or so ago, I received dozens of stories about the ways in which she has mentored them, and the extraordinary wisdom she has shared.

One young woman lawyer who interned for her for several months told me that she learned two of the most important lessons of her career during her brief period working with Justice Durham:  (1) the importance of having “presence;” (2) and the importance of having “perspective.”  The young intern was and is a diminutive woman with a quiet voice, whom Justice Durham encouraged to stand up, speak up, and not be afraid.   Watching Justice Durham, she said she understood the message right away.  The Chief could walk into any room and people just deferred to her, wanting her to lead the meeting or the discussion, because she always had such a clear vision of what needed to be done, was always so thoroughly prepared, and brought such knowledge, wisdom and thoughtfulness to the table.

The other thing that she found powerfully impressive was the “human” perspective she brought to the deliberations of the Court.  For her, the cases she dealt with were always about more than just legal issues – they were about people – and she understood that the decisions the court made had real significance for peoples’ lives.  “The people involved were always part of the discussion in conference, and, in a very humane way, she brought the issues down to a human level.”

Another woman lawyer remembered her insistence on appropriate, respectful language and forms of address in every setting; 

Another remembered that in the late 1980s Justice Durham helped her juggle her roles of lawyer, mother and Girl Scout leader, when she commented about the difficulty of taking her daughter out to sell her Girl Scout cookies, given the time constraints of her job.  Justice Durham immediately replied that she needed a source for Girl Scout Cookies, and not only bought cookies from the woman’s daughter, but arranged for her to sell them to the rest of the members of the Court and staff as well.

Another was present at a Disability Law Center Awards Reception at which Justice Durham was honored for her work with DLC.  In responding to the award, she related a recent experience she and her husband had had with their youngest daughter, who has Down Syndrome.  The vignette epitomized the goals of continued skills development and independence that people with disabilities, their families and the DLC strive to achieve.  She explained that her daughter, a young adult, now lives in a residential setting and is making such progress in establishing her own life that she and Dr. Durham were taken aback when they called one Saturday evening to invite her to go to dinner and a movie with them, and her daughter declined because she had other plans.  As usual, Justice Durham had just the right words to inspire her audience to keep working toward their goals, despite the challenges.

So many women wrote about times when Justice Durham took them aside for a private moment and offered words of congratulations and encouragement- for persevering, despite difficult personal and professional challenges.

She encouraged women balancing work and family by assuring them that everything was going to work out, and that their children would be happy as long as they were happy.

She told women that the most important thing they owed their children was a stable launching pad; she encouraged them to stay focused on their relationships with their spouses, by going on date nights and staying connected.

She counseled women that the key to having options as a lawyer was to not get in over your head financially.

One prominent attorney said that he had maybe met a few people who took on as many worthwhile projects as Justice Durham, but he had never met anyone who did so many so well.   “You can trust that where ever she turns her efforts, things will improve.”

Another wrote:  “Justice Durham has always been incredibly generous and gracious with her time, advice and willing recommendations, but her greatest gift to me has been her example.  She spends her time in constant service.  She is an inspiration to me on so many fronts:  the ways she treats people from every walk of life with warmth and respect; her amazing negotiation skills – allowing others to feel heard and understood and finding points of consensus where possible; her strength and grace under fire when faced with difficult situations or people; her empathy; her sharp intellect; her sense of humor; her honesty; her amazing ability to balance a large, loving family and a high-profile career; and her generosity with her time in driving and flying all over this country to participate in public service opportunities.

Finally, to that last point, her daughter, Jennifer wrote me that “Mom strengthens her family by making special memories.  She has a great sense of occasion.  She creates amazing dinner table settings and centerpiece displays to celebrate the season or holiday at hand.  Her special meals please the eye, gladden the heart, as well as nourish the body.

She gives thoughtful and meaningful gifts.

She takes her children out to special birthday lunches.

She makes fun memories.   She takes grandchildren, often one-on-one, for outings such as shopping, lunch, the ballet, a play, concert or musical.

She has a knack for organizing, and we have all benefitted from her hard work during critical times of transition, when she helped set up dorm rooms, new apartments,  new homes, new nurseries.  As her husband says:  “She creates order out of chaos” and can be like “a force of nature” when in high gear for an organizing project.

Most important, she strengthens us through her commitment to our family and her willingness to love and serve us all.

Her friends value her as a loyal, diligent pathfinder for women’s  participation in public life, for her dignified and unflagging efforts toward fairness and justice. She has been a unique example for women and men of the importance of personifying excellence by seeking justice for all.  And in addition to all that, she is a delightful, insightful and generous friend.

I treasure her friendship and the support and encouragement she has given me over all these years for all of the reasons everyone else has articulated so splendidly; but I also have to tell you that I admire the fact that she is endlessly curious and lives so boldly!   She never stops growing and learning, and sharing her wisdom with all of us.

Justice Durham, we are so grateful to you for your unfailing support and encouragement to all of us over all these years.  It has meant everything to us. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.