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Why a Democrat wants to name a federal courthouse in Utah after Orrin Hatch

Rep. Ben McAdams’ bill would be the second attempt to emblazon Hatch’s name on the new courthouse that opened in 2014.

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The federal courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

The federal courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While sorting through some personal papers at home earlier this month, Congressman Ben McAdams was thumbing through a scrapbook his mother had put together for him.

“I found a letter to me from Orrin Hatch, congratulating me for my Eagle Scout, and I remember how much that meant to me at the time,” McAdams recalled, “and how impressed I was that a United States senator took the time to send that letter.”

The gesture didn’t influence McAdams’ politics — he’s the sole Democrat in Utah’s congressional delegation. But almost 30 years after receiving that letter, McAdams wants to introduce a bill that would name the 10-story downtown federal courthouse after Hatch, the longest serving Republican ever on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Utah’s longest serving U.S. senator.

Hatch, 86, was in the Senate and on the Judiciary Committee for 40 years. He was first elected in 1977, defeating Democratic incumbent Sen. Frank E. Moss, whose name graces the former federal courthouse that sits on the same block as the newer building. Hatch retired from public office in 2018.

“As somebody who’s worked with Sen. Hatch when I was mayor of Salt Lake County and is appreciative of some of the impactful things that he got done for our country, I felt that this would be a fitting tribute. And I found myself in a position to do something about it,” McAdams said, explaining why he wants to sponsor the legislation.

If McAdams’ introduces a bill it would be the second attempt to emblazon Hatch’s name on the new courthouse that opened in 2014. The first try came in December 2018 just before the senator retired. But the proposal died in the House amid a government shutdown before the 116th Congress convened in early January 2019.

“The effort to name the courthouse after me came as a complete surprise when I was in office — and to be honest, I didn’t have any expectation that this would happen after I left office, either,” the former senator said in an email. “Whether it happens or not, I’m just honored to be considered.”

George Sutherland, the only Utahn ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court who served from 1922 to 1938, also has been mentioned as someone for whom the building could be named. A large courtroom in the building bears his name.

Overlooking differences

The irony of a Republican-controlled House failing to take up a bill honoring Hatch in late 2018, only to be revived almost two years later by a Democrat in a Democrat-controlled House isn’t lost on McAdams.

Hatch’s support for President Donald Trump, whom McAdams voted to impeach last year, hasn’t waned since he said in 2017 that he wanted to help make the Trump administration “the greatest presidency we’ve seen not only in generations but maybe ever.”

Asked about the president’s leadership during the ongoing pandemic and racial unrest, Hatch said Trump has been “dealt a difficult hand, to be sure, but I think he’s doing everything he can to play his hand right.”

A recent Pew Research survey found Trump’s approval rating dropping since the coronavirus pandemic hit and voters expressing more confidence in Democratic nominee Joe Biden unifying the nation.

“Of course, one of the president’s most important roles is to unite people, especially in times of division,” Hatch wrote. “What’s frustrating is almost every attempt he has made to do so has either been discounted by national media or distorted altogether, the president’s Fourth of July speech being a prime example.”

In the speech delivered July 4 on the south lawn of the White House, Trump praised his administration’s handling of ongoing crises and blasted political opponents and media “who seek to lie about the past in order to gain power in the present.”

In his email, Hatch called it one of the president’s best speeches and when read in its entirety “aimed to unify listeners around the enduring promise of the American idea. One of my favorite lines: ‘We are one family and one nation.’ It’s hard to make a stronger appeal to unity than that.”

McAdams hopes his Democratic colleagues will look past any political differences they had with Utah’s senior senator and conservative stalwart to recognize his contributions to Utah and the country.

“I’m not asking people to agree with every position Sen. Hatch ever took,” McAdams said, noting he doesn’t agree with many of Hatch’s conservative stances. “But, I think it’s a fitting tribute to someone who gave his life to public service.”

Still, McAdams has agreed not to rush his bill, at the request of two Republicans in Utah’s delegation: Congressman Chris Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee. They want to form a commission of local and community leaders to decide the name of the new courthouse, which sits in Stewart’s district.

“We believe that state and community leaders should have a part in naming such an important building for Utah,” Stewart and Lee said in a joint statement Wednesday. “There are multiple noteworthy Utahns who have positively impacted our state and we trust our local leaders to recommend a suitable namesake.”

McAdams has agreed to let that process play out before deciding whether to introduce his bill.

Shaping the judiciary

During his four decades on the Judiciary Committee, Hatch participated in the confirmation of “half of all federal judges who have ever served,” and of every justice on the the current Supreme Court. Hatch supported the controversial confirmations of Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, where the nominees’ alleged victims of sexual harassment and abuse testified during nationally televised hearings.

Hatch laments the partisan breakdown of the confirmation process, which he said began with the nomination of Robert Bork in 1987. Democrats portrayed the D.C. Circuit Court judge as an extreme conservative ideologue — a strategy that Hatch described as an orchestrated “political hit job against (Bork) that ultimately tanked his nomination.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy was subsequently nominated and confirmed.

“It’s quite discouraging to see how quickly the process has devolved,” Hatch wrote in his email. “The only way we can take politics out of the confirmation process is by educating the public on the proper role of a judge under the Constitution, which is to say what the law is, not what he or she wants it to be.”

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U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, gestures as he speaks during the Utah Republican election night party at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Hatch served two stints as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and was the ranking Republican on the panel twice. He said his greatest legislative achievements on the committee were sponsoring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 and shepherding through the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the International Religious Freedom Act.

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Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, conducts an interview in his new office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

While McAdams anticipates bipartisan support for naming the federal courts building in Salt Lake after Hatch, he also expects his bill will irritate some Democrats. McAdams, a moderate, had been targeted as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country running for reelection this year in a heavily Republican congressional district. But national analysts recently adjusted their forecasts to favor McAdams, as they view his Republican opponent, Burgess Owens, extreme in his conservative stances.

“I think for me, it’s always about doing what I think is right and let the chips fall where they may,” McAdams said of his proposal to name the courts building after Hatch, a staunch Republican. “I’m sure that there are going to be people who appreciate this gesture and others who are upset by it.”

Hatch sees the McAdams’ effort as exemplifying the bipartisanship that the former senator says he championed during his time in office. Hatch sometimes drew criticism from conservatives for his friendship with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.  

“Bipartisanship was a hallmark of my Senate tenure, and I want to continue working with my friends on the other side in the next chapter of my public service,” Hatch said. “Congressman McAdams is a good man, and I respect him very much. I’m both humbled and grateful that he would be willing to spearhead this bill.”