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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Justice Christine M. Durham leaves the Utah Supreme Courtroom after her retirement celebration at the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — For years Christine Durham was told that because she was a woman, her dream of practicing law and becoming a judge was implausible and inappropriate.

She didn't listen.

"The bottom line was that I wanted it very much, and I knew I had the ability and the skill. I just decided to ignore all of the people — and there were plenty of them — who told me that I couldn't, and that women didn't do that, and that women weren't welcome in certain places," Durham recalls.

Durham's 40-year career disproved every criticism from her detractors. She retired Wednesday, leaving a sturdy trail for the women following behind her, having served as Utah's first female district court judge, Utah Supreme Court justice and chief justice.

Now, as she leaves the bench as one of the most celebrated and accomplished jurists in state history, male or female, Durham credits her family, her colleagues, her faith and her love of the law for sustaining her through years of groundbreaking work.

Family and faith

Durham, the first of three children, was born in Los Angeles, going on to live in Washington, D.C., and Paris, France, as her father moved the family following his work with the Internal Revenue Service. She returned to the U.S. to study at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she met her husband, George Durham, who was studying at Harvard.

The two met in a student congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, developing a deepening friendship as they discussed philosophy, history, poetry and politics. Durham was already meeting resistance when she talked about her legal aspirations, but when she told George Durham, his reaction was different.

"He never flinched when I talked about my ambitions and my expectations that I would have a career. It's obviously one of the reasons we ended up married, because I didn't meet a lot of men like that," Durham said with a smile.

Speaking at a retirement reception for his wife Monday, George Durham recounted the early days of their courtship and his immediate confidence that the captivating 18-year-old woman would accomplish all she set her mind on doing.

"Christine's pioneering, in addition to success, has included isolation, loneliness, disappointment, criticism, jealousy, the sense of being an outsider, but also, somehow, the grit and courage to move forward," he praised.

When George Durham returned from an LDS mission to London, the couple married in 1966 and began a lifelong balancing act between her law career, his medical career and the needs of the five children they adored. Through the years they took turns working part time and equally split the responsibilities of caring for their home and family.

Even with two intensive careers in their household, Durham and her husband made sure their children had support for music lessons, recitals, parent-teacher conferences and other milestones.

"Having two of you completely devoted to that really helps," she said.

But in the center of their constantly overloaded schedules, Durham said she found "a peculiar balance" between work and home.

When things at home were hectic, Durham found comfort at work, where her goals were clear and her efforts appreciated. And when her career weighed on her, she sought solace in the love of her husband, her children and "the primary work" of her life.

The family's LDS faith also bolstered their relationships, Durham said.

"I just think a spiritual life is very important to forging and nurturing deep relationships with other people, and first and foremost, with the people in your family that you live with and love," Durham said.

But even that source of strength didn't go unchallenged.

While the couple felt strongly they had received divine assurance that they were on good paths and pursuing worthy goals, Durham said, the messages they heard within the faith — and the criticisms lobbed by some in their congregations — discouraged women working outside the home.

"We had this little bit of disconnect," Durham said. "But our own sense of commitment to that confirmation that we had — which, if you think of it doctrinally in the Mormon Church, is at the center of everything — that enabled us to deal with the dissonances and live comfortably with our choices."

But others in the Durhams' Salt Lake congregation and neighborhood embraced the couple's then unconventional goals, supporting their family and encouraging them forward.

And Durham, who at first had considered herself merely a transplant to the state where her husband was raised, quickly grew to love Utah as her home. It hit her as she was flying back after a business trip and, as she watched the sunset light up the lake and paint the mountains to the east a rich purple, she thought, "This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been," Durham said.

A trailblazer

From the beginning, Durham's path to the bench was daunting. During law school at Duke University in North Carolina, where her husband was also studying medicine, Durham was told she had no business pursuing a career as a married woman and a mother. Others accused her of taking a spot in the program that could have gone instead to a man trying to support a family.

But Durham reveled in her studies, encouraged by the kind whispers of supportive professors.

"There were several young law professors at Duke Law School when I was there who basically said, 'You can do this, it's going to be fine,' and you really needed to hear that," Durham said.

Durham's career continued its upward trajectory when the family moved to Utah after Durham had graduated law school and her husband began his residency in pediatrics. She praises her mentor and law partner, Norman Johnson, and Gov. Scott M. Matheson, who appointed her to the bench, for their confidence in her.

As Durham began her career in Utah in the early 1970s, Johnson invited her to join him in the law firm that would soon bear her name: Johnson, Durham & Moxley. And in 1978, with Johnson's encouragement, Durham threw her hat in the ring for a judgeship in the state's court of general jurisdiction.

"He was just remarkable," Durham said of Johnson. "He hired me and he gave me responsibility that no one my age and with my experience should have had. He brought me along, he taught me how to practice law, and he vouched for me with his counterparts in the (Utah State) Bar."

Matheson invited Durham onto the bench, making her the first female judge in a district court in Utah and marking just the first of several historic milestones in Durham's career.

"I tried to be the first one there in the morning and the last one out at night, I tried to prepare really diligently for my cases, I tried to learn as much as I could to do the job well," Durham recalled of her time as a trial judge.

And when Matheson nominated her for the Utah Supreme Court just four years later, Durham knew her work had paid off. The governor called while she was home with her family, asking, "Are you ready to make history with me again?"

While she had relished her time in the district court, addressing long lines of attorneys, defendants and cases each day, the Supreme Court turned out to be "my dream job," Durham said.

"On the Supreme Court it's a lot more cerebral, you're spending a lot of your time with principles of law, but you're also spending your time with other people who care deeply about those principles of law," Durham said.

A decision from the Utah Supreme Court, while deeply important to the parties involved, didn't just impact that single case, Durham emphasized. The principles laid out in each decision trickled down into the lower courts and set precedent for future cases.

"It's very important work, and it's also very diverse," Durham said. "There really is no activity on the part of people in the state of Utah that does not have the potential to come before us with a question to be answered."

Through 35 years in the high court, including a decade as chief justice, Durham brought an unprecedented uniformity, order and standards to Utah's judiciary, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said.

"She has been our country's preeminent leader for judicial education, and I think that because of her efforts, a whole lot of judges are a whole lot better educated, and a whole lot more capable of discharging their duties," Durrant said.

Durham also founded, participated in or led professional judicial organizations across the country and in Utah. Her accomplishments inspired judges who followed her career, Durrant said, especially women.

"She has been a role model and inspiration for so many," he said. "I just wonder how many young girls have been inspired that they can be anything, because she has done pretty much anything."

Liz Winter, general counsel for the University of Utah, was among those women. Winter, who was the first in her family to practice law, found a powerful role model in Durham as she served as her clerk in 1990.

"I looked up to her so much for how you're supposed to act as a lawyer," Winter said. "I remember I would drive her to the airport when she would go on business trips just to have extra one-on-one time with her and to hear her perspectives on life and on law and on things that were happening."

Winter especially admired Durham's unfailingly calm demeanor, even in a disagreement, and her willingness to listen to all sides of an issues. In her work day to day and looking out over Utah's legal community, Winter says it is easy to see Durham's influence, especially for women. She knows it wasn't easy.

"Having a trailblazer come in and be someone who is so smart and consistently professional I think really paves the way in a way that is more effective and makes it easier for the rest of us," Winter said.

But some of Durham's most impactful advice for Winter was about family. Winter recalls that, as she was purchasing a house, Durham urged her to live within her financial means "because it's the key to a happy professional life."

Durham also encouraged Winter to find quality time to spend with her husband, who was equally busy in his career, in order to give their children and family a strong foundation.

Durham became a role model for dozens of women in the legal field. To thank her for her accomplishments and her example, 75 female judges and commissioners across the state penned a letter to Durham out of appreciation for the trail she blazed for them.

"Thank you for being a supportive and considerate mentor and for teaching us to be bold, compassionate and committed to professionalism," the women wrote.

Winter and other women who clerked for Durham have had lunch together with her every other month or so for nearly three decades in order to continue learning from her, Winter said.

"It has been a just great, great opportunity to have insight into someone who is farther along in their career than we are, than I am," Winter said.

More work to do

When Durham set her sights on a law career as an ambitious student at Wellesley College, John F. Kennedy had been elected president and the country was enjoying the "Camelot," years. However, she found herself concerned about race relations and civil rights issues, admiring judges and lawyers as "change makers" who could take on oppressive laws.

"Unfortunately in that era, we all thought that if you just changed the law, everything would repair itself. It's true that enormous strides were made, the discrimination in public housing and discrimination in education and so on eventually became illegal, but you still saw the residue for generations. We still see the residue, to some extent, of the exclusion and restrictions that people faced because of their gender or their race, in particular," Durham said.

Looking back, Durham acknowledges there is still much work to do on the same issues that drew her to law in the first place. And in addition to race and gender, oppression now extends to questions of sexual identity and preference, she says.

Durham began her legal career at a time when little more than 2 percent of lawyers in the United States were women. While the barriers she faced entering the field have been toppled, she still sees a void, especially true for Utah, where less than 30 percent of the Utah State Bar is female.

"We still see real gaps in certain types of practice, in private practice and big law women lag significantly behind, there's a pay gap, we still are at about one-third of women on the state and federal benches," Durham said. "So even after all of these years and open access to education, there are still disparities, there is still a lot of work to be done."

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After Thanksgiving with her children, time with her husband, a trip to Paris with her siblings and some well-deserved rest, Durham said she is interested in working on court access issues in Utah, connecting low-income litigants with attorneys and resources to help them navigate the legal system.

"It's just not right that the courts should turn into a place where only the wealthy can find justice," Durham insists.

Her seat is being filled by Paige Johnson, a trial court judge out of the 3rd District who was unanimously confirmed for the job by the state Senate.

"She's going to love it," Durham said of her successor. "I predict she's going to be a superstar."