Utah's All-Mormon Supreme Court Shows Little Debate
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- Utah's Supreme Court consists of five
justices who act in unison appreciably more than the previous bench.
Justices Michael J. Wilkins and Matthew B. Durrant have replaced
recently retired justices I. Daniel Stewart and Michael D. Zimmerman.
University of Utah professor John Flynn sees the new court as more
pragmatic since the departures.
"Academics like to argue about ideas; practical lawyers like to deal
with the narrow, practical problem they have got and get it done
with," Flynn said. "This court seems to stick to the narrowest
interpretation of an issue. That is perhaps the most marked
difference between the prior composition and the current one."
The all-white, all Mormon court presides in a state where 70 percent
of its residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints. The court's shared religious beliefs and unanimous
rulings disguise conflicts between the justices, who differ on the
value of dissent in their political views and on the timely issue of
the role of chief justice.
Early next year the court will secretly select a new leader and could
make history by choosing Justice Christine M. Durham, the state's
first and only female justice. After 19 years on the court, Durham
would like the job. Durham has speculated that the new bench may be
coming out of a honeymoon period.
"There was a tendency, as a result of that, not to be as eager to
push for consensus," she said. "Whereas in the new court we don't
know each other that well and one intends to anticipate more
opportunities to persuade, perhaps, and I have seen that happen,"
In a book by James Magleby, an attorney with Ballard, Spahr, Andrews
& Ingersoll, that profiles each of the member of the Utah Supreme
Court from 1896 to 1996, Magleby sees dissents as an affirmation that
there is a vigourous debate on the court. "I like to know that the
court is not unified or uniform on any one particular issue, because
I think that's the strength of the court; There are five individuals
on it." Magleby said.
Flynn thinks it is too early to tell if consensus will be the
hallmark of the new court, noting much will depend on the types of
cases they consider. "A court may for a period of time be relatively
dissent-free," Flynn said, "but suddenly get hit with a period of big
Utah's Supreme Court, sometimes known as Utah's court of last resort,
hears appeals in death penalty cases, first-degree felony
convictions, major civil litigations, rulings from the Public Service
and Tax commissions, and also rulings on discipline cases against
lawyers and state judges.
Salt Lake Tribune 23Dec01 T2
By Elizabeth Neff: Salt Lake Tribune