On the Many Reasons for Our Gratitude to Chief Justice Christine M. Durham

By Shepard, Randall T. | Albany Law Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

On the Many Reasons for Our Gratitude to Chief Justice Christine M. Durham


Shepard, Randall T., Albany Law Review


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State supreme courts, like any other institution, benefit as much from change as from continuity, and retiring judges try hard to remind ourselves of that as we step back from our calling and allow others to lead. But while the Utah Supreme Court may well continue to thrive notwithstanding a transition in the center chair on its bench, one can scarcely overstate the extent to which that court and the state it serves have benefited from Chief Justice Christine M. Durham's years of generous service. Certainly, those audibly gasping with shock when she announced her retirement at the end of her final State of the Judiciary Address--about everyone in the room, I am told--would agree. (1)

My friendship with Chief Justice Durham stems from the same sources as my friendships with many other state justices and judges: the national and professional service organizations we support in the hopes of improving our justice system at all levels. I came to know her best through the Conference of Chief Justices, which consists of the fifty-eight highest judicial officers of the states and territories. Chief Justice Durham led the Conference as President during 2009-10, and I served in the same role in 2005-06.

This source of what most rules of evidence would call my personal knowledge of Christine Durham's accomplishments reflects a relatively recent shift in the dynamic of the national judiciary. Throughout much of the nation's history, even judges from the same state had few reasons and fewer occasions for collaborative reflection on how well their state judiciary as a whole provided justice to the citizens of their states. For justices and judges from different states, those reasons and occasions were fewer still. In the last two decades, however, the growing uniformity of state law and the more national nature of legal practice have propelled judges to more frequent collaboration with their colleagues from other states.

Consider the missions of the enterprises in which Christine Durham has been so prominent. For example, as Chief Justice Durham has explained, the Conference of Chief Justices advances the administration of justice in the states by promoting the vitality, independence, and effectiveness of state judicial systems, and by advocating for resources adequate to sustain the running of the state courts. (2) Indeed, since state courts hear more than ninety-five percent of all civil and criminal cases in the country, vibrant state judiciaries are vital to sustaining the rule of law. By bringing judges into contact with each other with this spirit in the air, these organizations expose judges to the strategies of their peers in other states for dealing with challenges in the practical administration of justice. The comparisons inevitably invite only healthy competition, a virtuous upward spiral in the provision of justice in the states.

Chief Justice Durham is a clear example of that dynamic at work. From her position of leadership on the Utah Supreme Court and as Chair of the Utah Judicial Council, she has led a considerable array of reforms and initiatives to improve the quality of justice. (3) Over the last ten years, for example, the Utah courts have dramatically improved court access by creating an Online Court Assistance Program to aid self-represented litigants and an Alternative Dispute Resolution Department to utilize mediation in trial courts. To improve the judiciary's accountability to the public, the Utah courts adopted CourTools, a performance measurement system developed by the National Center for State Courts, and even began conducting public trust and confidence surveys. (4)

One of the genuine challenges of being a reformer in a small state is the simple problem of scale and resources as genuine barriers to addressing multiple issues at a time. Christine Durham has somehow regularly summoned up the time and capital to move forward with simultaneous new initiatives. …

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