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Utah chief justice expresses concerns over national political polarization and institutional distrust

Courthouses should be sanctuaries, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said Tuesday

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Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant receives a standing ovation after giving the State of the Judiciary speech in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Echoing Gov. Spencer Cox’s unease about growing political polarization, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant mounted the dais Tuesday to express concern over growing distrust in institutions and the importance of judicial independence.

Addressing Utah lawmakers in the House chambers, Durrant referred to the judiciary branch as “conscientious stewards of the people’s money” and requested additional funds. Saying there as a “critical shortage of qualified interpreters” and “growing case problems,” Durrant indicated that more funding for interpreters and judicial officer positions was a priority.

The bulk of Durrant’s speech focused on reflections he’s had while traveling across the state to meet with legislators and judges in Utah’s districts.

“It seems that distrust in all institutions, especially government’s, seems to have increased exponentially,” Durrant said during his traditional State of Judiciary address, explaining that the distrust has also extended to those who work within these same institutions. However, he said, “I was reminded that in Utah, whatever might be the case elsewhere, government works.”

Noting that there are disagreements at the Capitol, Durrant said “the beauty of democracy” lies in public officials having different viewpoints on the best solutions to important issues.

Sacrifice and courage go along with running for public office as well as the risk of public rejection, he said. “To me, that is a commitment to be respected regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with your politics. ... I don’t see a lot of performative politics in this group.”

Looking out of the sea of legislators of different political stripes, Durrant indicated that he sees a body of people in public service “who are here to serve, to legislate and to govern.” Declaring that Utah is seen as “one of the best managed states in the country,” he thanked the legislators for their commitment to their work.

The work of the judiciary is different than the work of the legislative branch, he said. The judiciary reads the Constitution to understand “just how those who voted to ratify that Constitution or that amendment, how they understood the words to mean.” Durrant called it a form of “time travel.”

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Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant speaks on the opening day of the 2024 Legislature on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our country’s founders. In a clear-eyed way, they saw the critical importance of a three-branch system of government with each branch playing a distinct and different role, with each branch serving as a check-up log and a balance to the other branches,” he said. “They also saw the critical importance of each branch being in the community.”

Durrant also addressed how some state judges face elections and have to fundraise “more and more money” to win these elections. Pointing toward Wisconsin, he said the candidates in one race spent millions — $51 million total — during the course of the last election. “So, where does that money come form? Well it comes from interest reviews. Some from out of state. It comes from the very lawyers who will be appearing before the judge. It comes from the very corporations whose case will be heard by the judge.”

Referring to the Founding Fathers, the chief justice said “the founders cared so much about judicial independence that they created a federal judiciary where the judges are appointed, not elected, and appointed to lifetime terms.”

While early states adopted this model, the wave of populism with Andrew Jackson as the principle figure marked a shifting point where some states moved away from this approach, Durrant said. “Over time, many became dissatisfied with this approach. They built state judiciaries that became overly political.” But others wanted to restore judiciaries to “impartiality.”

Transitioning to speaking about present day, Durrant pointed toward Utah’s Constitution requiring selection of judges on a nonpartisan basis and the state’s rigorous vetting system.

“In Utah, judges don’t get selected based on how well they can campaign or how much money they can raise,” he said. “They get selected based on the reputation they have developed as lawyers over the course of their professional lives for integrity, honesty and fairness and intellectual capacity.”

After judges are appointed by a county commission, they face a retention election after six years, which Durrant said is a system “for holding judges accountable.”

Concluding his remarks, Durrant recalled his trip to Manti where he met with legislators and judges. As he walked on the ground where the new Manti 6th District Courthouse will stand, different adjectives came to mind like “beautiful” or “welcoming.”

“But the descriptor that strikes me most powerful is this: sanctuary.”

“It’s a sanctuary, a refuge, a fortress,” Durrant said. Returning back to political polarization, he expressed his dismay over the deterioration of discourse, how people treat each other online and the increasing polarization. “Some Americans see those with whom they disagree, fellow Americans, as enemies,” he said.

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House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, talk with Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice John A. Pearce after the State of the Judiciary in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Gesturing at the prevalence of insults and name-calling that can be found across the public square, Durrant said that those values were not representative of most Americans. “I don’t think that what we see on our screens, both large and screen, is reflective of the values that still govern most Americans, certainly most Utahns, in their everyday lives.”

In the courthouse, other values like basic human dignity and integrity prevail, and that’s why Durrant considers a courthouse a sanctuary.

When people walk into the walls of a courthouse, the chief justice said “they can expect to find a judge who carefully listens to them, who will treat them with dignity, who won’t care about who they know, how much money they make, who they vote for, what race, gender, religion, sexual orientation might be, and won’t care about any other extremely irrelevant factor.”

The system isn’t perfect, Durrant said, but Utahns can expect to find judges who want to protect their rights. “Within the walls of the courthouse, the rule of law reigns supreme such that no one is above the law and no beneath it.”

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Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant waits outside the House chamber before the State of the Judiciary at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News