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Utah Supreme Court chief justice stepping down, plans to stay on the court

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 2:39 a.m. MDT

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham gives the State of the Judiciary address in the Senate chambers, Jan. 24, 2011, in Salt Lake City. She announced Monday she'll step down as chief justice but will remain a Supreme Court justice. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham gives the State of the Judiciary address in the Senate chambers, Jan. 24, 2011, in Salt Lake City. She announced Monday she'll step down as chief justice but will remain a Supreme Court justice. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Saying it is time for new leadership, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham will relinquish her position this spring, but not her seat on the panel.

"It has been my honor and privilege to lead Utah's judiciary through a challenging and productive decade," she told Utah lawmakers Monday in her annual State of the Judiciary speech. "I am extremely proud to look back at all that we have accomplished, and look forward to all that we are poised to accomplish."

Durham, 66, will step down at the end of March. The five-member court unanimously selected Associate Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant to serve a four-year term as chief justice beginning April 1.

Durrant is blessed with great ability, intellect and sense of humor, she said. "I know that he will provide superb leadership in the years to come."

Justice Matthew B. Durrant speaks during a Utah Supreme Court hearing June 3, 2010. Durrant will become the chief justice beginning April 1. (Trent Nelson, Trent Nelson) Justice Matthew B. Durrant speaks during a Utah Supreme Court hearing June 3, 2010. Durrant will become the chief justice beginning April 1. (Trent Nelson, Trent Nelson)

In an interview after her speech to the House and Senate, Durham said there's no particular reason for giving up the post now. "Ten years seemed like a good period of service," she said.

As chief justice, Durham heads the Utah Judicial Council, which is the policy-making body for the state courts. It monitors bills that could impact the judicial system and proposes an annual budget to the Legislature.

"We have a surprise a week during the legislative session," she said.

Durham doesn't have a vote in that role but said she is frequently consulted about legislation affecting the courts. She also meets with House and Senate leadership each year.

Utah Supreme Court Justices Matthew Durrant, Christine Durham and Jill Parrish heard arguments in Salt Lake City Tuesday, April 12, 2011, on cases involving the FLDS Church's United Effort Plan land trust. (Trent Nelson, Trent Nelson, Trent Nelson) Utah Supreme Court Justices Matthew Durrant, Christine Durham and Jill Parrish heard arguments in Salt Lake City Tuesday, April 12, 2011, on cases involving the FLDS Church's United Effort Plan land trust. (Trent Nelson, Trent Nelson, Trent Nelson)

But "there's no tradition in Utah of the chief justice being the chief lobbyist," she said.

Durham, who has served on the court since 1982, said she won't miss all the administrative meetings she attends, though "I will miss being on the inside of what's going on."

In terms of matters before the court, she said there's no difference between the chief justice and the associate justices. Durham said she doesn't know how much longer she will serve but noted the state's mandatory retirement age is 75.

Durham noted that Utah experienced economic downturns and recession for more than half of her 10 years as chief justice.

"I am inclined to think that, on occasion, a bad crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and Utah's court system has used the stress of recent years as a catalyst for solving problems creatively and perhaps more quickly that we might have been able to do otherwise," she said.

Members of the Utah Supreme Court, from left to right, Justice Ronald E. Nehring, Associate Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant, Justice Jill N. Parrish, Justice Thomas R. Lee and Chief Justice Christine M. Durham stand after the State of the Judiciary address during the opening day of the Utah State Legislature Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in the Utah State Capitol. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Members of the Utah Supreme Court, from left to right, Justice Ronald E. Nehring, Associate Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant, Justice Jill N. Parrish, Justice Thomas R. Lee and Chief Justice Christine M. Durham stand after the State of the Judiciary address during the opening day of the Utah State Legislature Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in the Utah State Capitol. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Durham said she is "cautiously optimistic" about the Legislature's upcoming budget deliberations and is not seeking additional resources, with one exception: a bill that would define and expand the court's self-help center.

As a pilot program, she said, the center has supported thousands of Utahns who find themselves in court with no access to legal services.

"This part of our workload has grown exponentially during the recession, as you can imagine," Durham said.

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