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Family Photo
Christine and George Durham, plus four children and other family members, in a 2000 photograph.

Around the Durham household, they like to say they have a family motto — "If there's a harder way to do it, we'll find it." No kidding. They have spent a lifetime, it seems, just piling on challenges for themselves.

Hard: Law school. Harder: Law school with a baby. Hardest: With two babies. Even harder: With a husband in medical school. Harder than that: Attend three different law schools in three semesters.

Not enough of a challenge? Just give them a minute.

Hard: Trying to start a career as a lawyer. Harder: As a woman. Hardest: While her husband completes his medical residency and opens a private practice. Even harder: With four children, one with special needs. Harder than that: While your husband is an LDS Church bishop. Beyond hard: Get yourself nominated to the Supreme Court.

Hard: Becoming the first woman to be named a judge for the 3rd District Court of Utah at the age of 36. Harder: The first woman to be named to the Utah Supreme Court. Hardest: The first woman to be named chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

You get tired just thinking about it. In one household they managed a family, school and careers in medicine and law. Who in their right mind does this?

"It has been a busy life," says Chief Justice Christine Durham, who wouldn't have it any other way.

It has all paid off, these dual roles of career and family. Her husband George, former chief of the medical staff at Primary Children's Medical Center, is a successful pediatrician, and their children are grown and prosperous. Durham, 58, is arguably the most powerful woman in Utah — now or ever — although Olene Walker will soon challenge her for that unofficial title.

In Utah, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court is also chief of the judicial branch of the state government (the other two branches being the executive and legislative). That means not only is Durham in charge of the Supreme Court, she also administrates such entities as juvenile courts, justice courts, district courts and the administrative office of the courts with its hundreds of employees. She is, in essence, CEO of the judiciary.

Durham's sway does not end there. In legal circles, she is widely respected and wields considerable influence.

"She not only does a great job here as chief justice," says Utah Supreme Court Justice Matthew Durrant, "but she is very influential nationally. She makes us look very good as a state."

"Utah has no idea what this woman's national reputation is," says Kathleen Flake, professor of American religion at Vanderbilt and a longtime friend of Durham's. "Utah doesn't know what it has."

Here are a few highlights of Durham's influence:

She sits on the board of trustees at Duke University. "In a private university like that, especially one as prestigious as Duke, the only people serving on those boards, other than alumni representatives, would be somebody with skadoodles of money," says Martha Daughtrey, a federal judge on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Tennessee. "I know the Durhams, and they're not wealthy people. That appointment is based on merit. That alone is recognition of her national stature. She has something substantial to give."

Durham is one of the founding members of the National Association of Women Judges and a former president of the organization and honoree of the year.

Durham is a council member of the American Law Institute. To the man on the street, this means little, but, as Daughtrey notes, "The American Law Institute is big stuff. They write the uniform laws that are used as models for state laws all over the country. To be on that council is a very significant achievement. The people on that council are all there because of their stellar records and intellectual power. We're talking about real brain power here — 20 to 25 of the best thinkers and best legal minds in the country — lawyers, judges, professors."

She was hand-picked by the president of the American Bar Association to serve on the executive committee (the governing board) for the Appellate Judges Conference, the single trade association for the nation's appellate judges. She also served a term on the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession — "a position people kill for," says Daughtrey. The original committee chair was held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She has served as a faculty member on the New York University Appellate Judges Seminar — the pre-eminent school for appellate judges.

The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court appointed Durham to the advisory committee for the rules of civil procedure. This is another weighty and important appointment, because the committee drafts rules that govern all the litigation in federal courts, most of which are adopted by state courts.

In 1993, Durham reportedly was even considered by the Clinton administration for a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her name was mentioned in the press as a potential nominee for the job that eventually went to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Durham "has intellectual depth," says Daughtrey, echoing the sentiment of other associates who were contacted. "She may be one of the best thinkers of any state judge in the country. She is sought as a first-class intellect. And she's the nicest person in the world. Utah is lucky to have her. I wish I could make her chief justice of the Tennessee court."

"I went to a national conference, and I was astounded at the way other judges looked to her," says Aileen Clyde, a Utahn who has held several citizen appointments on judicial committees. "There were lots of heavy discussions, and it was remarkable the vision and ideas she had. It's a remarkable story, and it's been great for the state, but Utah doesn't know much about her."

Not much seems to be known about Durham, which might be at least partly attributable to her office. Even some colleagues say they know little about her background.

Durham is in many ways a seeming contradiction — a female judge in a predominantly male field; an LDS woman who has become a professional and a wife and mother and says things like, "I have always been of an unconventional bent. I lobbied for ERA. There's a perverse streak in my nature."

That's about as far as she will discuss her personal politics. This much we know: She is the only remaining justice on the Supreme Court who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson. Ask her if she could be described as liberal and, not surprisingly, she turns coy.

"I'm going to refuse to answer that question," she says after a lengthy pause. "It has political connotations that have problems for judges. My opinion on social issues would (be lengthy). For example, one thing that happens on this court at the moment is that we are known as a Mormon court. Only in Utah would having a Lutheran (Ron Nehring) be considered diversity. Being Mormon doesn't mean I think in a certain way about all issues. My thinking is formed by my entire life. I am wary of labels."

If her life has formed much of her thinking, then consider it diverse and broad. She spent her early years in California before moving to Washington, D.C., at the age of 11. Three years later, the family moved to France, where she completed her prep education.

Her father, William Meaders, the U.S. Treasury Department attache to the Paris Embassy, didn't complete college until later in life, and her mother, Louise, had no college education, which might account for the emphasis they placed on education with their three children. (Durham's brother William took a law degree and her sister Therese earned a master's degree in French.)

Christine was passionate about school, learning and reading, devouring the classics by night light or under the bedcovers with a flashlight.

"I identified early on that that was my strength — being good in school, being smart, reading," she recalls. "That was how I saw an avenue to achievement. I was always ambitious."

She attended the American School of Paris for a couple of years and then completed her senior year at a private French school. She was rewarded with a major scholarship and loan package to Wellesley, an elite private college for women in Massachusetts where she shared classes and a dorm with, among others, Diane Sawyer. She considered a degree in comparative literature while studying French, Spanish and English literature (in their original languages). She considered aiming for divinity school, "but I couldn't figure out what the world would do with a Mormon theologian." She settled on law.

"A lot of it had to do with my generation — this was the time of civil rights and Vietnam," she says. "I identified law and lawyering as a way to make a difference in the world. I was probably overly idealistic. But I realized it played to my strengths of being a talker and a reader and loving language."

At Wellesley, she was in her element.

"College was the most liberating, engaging, exciting experience I ever had," she says. "To be with all those bright women and faculty. It was my dream come true."

There were complications, though. George.

She met him at church, which she finds ironic in retrospect. When she went to college, she recalls, "I had decided I was disaffected with the church. I thought college would be a nice break" from going to church.

It didn't work out that way. Her parents were in Paris, she knew no one at Wellesley and she grew homesick. "So I went to church," she says. She met George, a Harvard student. They dated steadily, then he left on an LDS Church mission. When he returned two years later, she was a senior and he a sophomore. They married during the Christmas break.

Thus began a 25-year track meet of juggling schedules and nurturing a marriage, education, careers and children. After graduating summa cum laude from Wellesley, Christine taught school at a junior college in Boston for a year while George finished his junior year. A year later she began law school at Boston College while George completed his senior year. He graduated midway through his senior year and accepted a teaching post in Arizona to save money for medical school.

After one semester of law school, Christine transferred to Arizona State. After a semester at ASU, she transferred again, this time to Duke University, where George was also accepted into the medical school. That made three law schools in three semesters. "I'm the only person I know who transferred in the middle of their first year of law school," she says wryly.

After finishing law school, Christine began her legal career, working for two years while George completed medical school. In 1973, they came to Salt Lake City so George could complete a three-year residency in pediatrics at the University of Utah.

If all this weren't enough, the children had already started to arrive. She had their first child two weeks before she began law school. She had her second child during her third year of law school. She had two more children during George's residency, one with Down syndrome.

"George loves kids," says Christine. "He wanted a bunch. I knew I wanted a career. The deal was I would have them, but they were 50 percent his. It's been a 50-50 proposition, but not all at the same time."

While George completed his residency and started his practice, Christine did the bulk of the child care, cutting back to a part-time work schedule. George and Christine arranged their schedules so that most of the time one of them was home when the children were there. After George established his practice at the Bryner Clinic, he told his wife, "I'm in a good place; it's time for me to cut back and you go full time." So George worked part time for several years, putting in partial days at the clinic in exchange for being on call full time on nights and weekends.

"We didn't see a lot of each other during those years," says Christine, "but we didn't miss parent-teacher conferences and plays."

Says George, "One of our guiding principles was I would rather flunk out of my career than flunk out of my family responsibilities. Families have always been a significant priority for us. But we've also been eager to do these other things."

There were sacrifices and accommodations made along the way. Christine was invited to join Law Review at Duke, a monumental honor for a law student. She turned it down to be home with her babies. George was heavily recruited at Duke for thoracic surgery, but decided it would impossible without a full-time housewife. He took up pediatrics instead.

Relatives shared some of the baby-sitting duties during their college years. George also staggered his classes to be home more. Christine nursed the baby while also reading her constitutional law textbook — "You need a good solid bookholder," she says. She would leave class and rush home to nurse her babies.

The lifestyle was a marriage killer. George was one of 49 married students attending medical school at Duke. By their senior year, seven were divorced. The psychology department met with the students to discuss "medical marriages." They were counseled to get away together for 24 hours every couple of months while sharing baby-sitting duties with other "medical couples."

"We tried to listen to that advice," says George.

When Christine and George began their careers, they had at least one lunch date during the week and one "calendar talk" in which they would plan the week and the baby-sitting chores — "strategic communication," George calls it. They also hired a nanny to work about 25 hours a week.

"There was a moment after our last child was born that our nanny didn't show up one day," says Christine. "When I found her she said she just couldn't do it; it was too hard. I told George I can't deal with this. If you can't find a solution, I'm going to have to quit.

"He was so terrified of me not having the outlet of work, he went out and found our nanny and she was wonderful. The key was that I was doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a lawyer. I loved my work. I also wanted time with my children. I didn't do anything else. It was kids and work. The same was true for George."

Durham, of course, faced other serious challenges outside the home in the work world as a woman pioneering a career in law. The irony is that while her gender held her back or denied her certain opportunities in the beginning, it wound up being a blessing in disguise.

When she graduated from Duke in 1971, Durham discovered that there wasn't a single law firm in the so-called Research Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill that would even interview a woman for a job.

"As a result, I didn't have a traditional career," she says.

She performed a wide variety of jobs, little knowing that it was the perfect diverse, on-the-job education for a future judge. She taught law to medical students at Duke. She did consulting work with protective services for the elderly. She represented clients on the county indigent list. She did personal injury work. She worked as a research assistant to pass medical legislation.

When the Durhams moved to Utah, she found more challenges. "There were only about a dozen women practicing law in Salt Lake City," she recalls. She talked to one man who was the hiring associate for a local law firm, and he confided to her that there was no way he could interview her.

She wrote briefs for the Utah Attorney General's Office, she taught family law and medicine at BYU and the University of Utah. Then a big job fell into her lap. A former Duke classmate, Norm Johnson, called and said his firm was looking for an associate. For four years she handled securities, litigation and corporate law for Johnson, Durham & Moxley.

Gender challenges notwithstanding, Durham's career was on the fast track.

In 1978 — just seven years after she began her professional career and five years after arriving in Utah — she was named a state district judge. In 1982, she was named to the Utah Supreme Court. In 2002, she was named chief justice. Her broad range of experience, impressive academic credentials, competence and gender combined to accelerate her career.

"Many people have said that being appointed to the court is like being struck by lightning — it's a matter of things coming together," she says. "You've got to have the support of colleagues, the governor has to be willing and interested."

Not that she always felt welcome. There were slights along the way, some subtle, some not. Judges addressing her sarcastically as "Madam Judge." Things said behind her back. One colleague told her Utah wasn't ready for a female Supreme Court justice, years before she was named to the bench. In four years as a district court judge, she was never invited by the other judges to their lunch or social outings, which they did fairly regularly.

"It was a feeling of some isolation," she says.

Today, Durham isn't even the only woman on the state Supreme Court, and she has won everybody's respect.

"I think she's brilliant," says Gladys Kessler, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. "Her mind makes connections and analogies that, when she comes out with them, they just really strike you. They are so insightful and accurate."

"She really does have a brilliant mind," says Durrant. "Anyone who knows her would say that. In addition to that, she has very sound judgment. Some people have that scholarly talent but don't have the common sense and wisdom. She's got both. It makes her an exceptional judge."

The hallmark of Durham's judicial career is education, both of the judiciary and the citizenry. She worked with the state board of education to approve legislation that will put civics and government into the core curriculum of school (the curriculum is being written now), and has participated in programs around the nation to educate judges. Her passion for education originated in her own experience as a young judge.

"When I became a trial judge in 1978, I was handed a borrowed robe and a case file and was told, here, go be a judge," she recalls. "There was no orientation, no training, no bench book that contained standardized practices — how to seat a jury, for instance. There was no one even to ask. It was horrifying. The whole field of judiciary education was in its infancy. And Utah was not unusual in that area."

Some credit Durham for helping Utah to earn a national reputation for having one of the nation's best judicial systems. "The Utah judiciary has been very progressive," says Clyde.

Looking back at her career, Durham remarks, "I do feel good about having survived." She and her family have done better than that, of course. Almost every close friend notes how well the Durham children have done. The oldest, Jennifer Tolk, a Harvard grad, studied music, teaches music and has three children. Meghan, a Wellesley grad, took a master's degree in modern dance performance and teaches classes at Princeton. Troy (Harvard) is seeking an MBA at the Wharton School of Business. And Melinda does secretarial work in George's office.

"Christine is a very caring, hands-on mom, and their children are wonderful," says Cheryll May, a longtime friend of the family.

"She's a very warm person, very caring and compassionate," says Kessler. "And she's always been deeply involved in her family."

All this notwithstanding, George isn't recommending that others follow the Durhams' lead. "We were young people raised under (former LDS Church) President David O. McKay," he says. "He said no success can compensate for failure in the home. A lot of our commitment comes from that. Christine has been doing for her what is the right thing to do. She has these enormous skills. At the same time, I don't think every family could do what we've done — or should. You've got to do what's best for your family."

For her part, Christine, a cheery, gregarious woman who is nothing like the taciturn stereotypical judge, thrives on work and love of the law. Even after decades of being on the bench, she has retained some of her '60s-'70s idealism and enthusiasm.

"I still see law and the concept of the rule of law that we enjoy in the United States as a miraculous means of maintaining order and making human progress possible," she says. "And the enormous intellectual stimulation in the law, the concepts it concerns itself with, are so fundamental to those ideas of human order and progress."

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