Gov. Mike Leavitt's nominees for the Utah Supreme Court were grilled for nearly four hours Wednesday by lawmakers about everything from the separation of church and state to more personal concerns.

No vote was taken by the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee and another meeting with the nominees, 3rd District Judge Ronald E. Nehring and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill N. Parrish, was set for Tuesday.

Wednesday's hearing began with an apology from the committee chairman, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, for comments he made to the Deseret News about Nehring, who is being treated for cancer.

Nehring accepted the apology and brought his doctor, Gordon Watson, along Wednesday to answer questions about his ability to serve as a justice. Watson told the committee he has "every expectation" that Nehring, 55, will be cured and that his health should not be at issue.

Buttars had told the newspaper after a closed-door meeting of the committee Monday there was concern about the judge's health because he is undergoing "extreme chemotherapy for cancer."

Wednesday, Buttars said he had "no bias on the candidates" and, after apologizing to Nehring, said that the "last thing in the world I think me and anyone here wants, is to pre-judge anybody."

The committee asked Parrish, who has five young children, about whether she had the time to devote to the job. "Absolutely," she said, adding that she gave that careful consideration before applying.

"I do have a family that's very important to me and I believe I owe them something as well," Parrish, 41, and a graduate of Yale Law School, said. If confirmed, she would be only the second woman on the five-member panel.

Nehring, a Lutheran who would be the only nonmember of the state's predominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving on the high court, said religion shouldn't matter.

He said suggesting that a non-Mormon is needed to add diversity to the court suggests that now justices act in "some kind of lockstep." He said he is not satisfied that a divide exists between the state's Mormons and non-Mormons.

Much of the questioning of both Nehring and Parrish centered on their opinions about some of the most controversial subjects dealt with by the nation's courts, including abortion rights and the separation of church of state.

The candidates were reluctant to discuss many of their views, citing judicial ethical rules against speaking out on issues that may come before them as justices. However, both made it clear they believe in judicial restraint — and leaving legislating up to elected officials.

That's something important to lawmakers. Buttars and others have complained about judges legislating from the bench as well as picking and choosing which laws they will enforce.

Utah's judicial council decided last year to keep the state's courthouses "weapons-free" zones despite a 2002 law requiring the installation of gun lockers for concealed weapons permit holders.

Buttars said he expects the committee may meet in a closed session Tuesday to discuss the candidates. He said he is not sure they will be ready to vote then on whether to recommend the candidates to the full Senate for confirmation.


E-MAIL: [email protected]