For the first time since 2008, the Utah Senate did not approve a judicial nominee put forward by a governor.
Senators refused to even take a vote Wednesday on Catherine Conklin’s nomination to serve as a 2nd District judge.
Conklin, a domestic-relations commissioner, made it through her confirmation hearing Monday with a favorable recommendation in a 3-1 vote, but widespread opposition surfaced in the closed Republican Senate caucus, said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.
“I feel bad about this whole thing. We had a little bit of a blowup [in caucus],” said Jenkins, who wouldn’t discuss specifics of the dispute because the GOP gatherings are supposed to be secret. “I was very unhappy, because these [nominees] put their lives on the line. They look and see things we never see. It was just a hard thing. It was very emotional.”
Jenkins was the lone vote against Conklin at her confirmation hearing but said he “was a big supporter” in the caucus meeting.
Since Conklin’s nomination expires Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert could renominate her in the future. His office did not comment on the Senate’s inaction.
This marks the first time the Senate hasn’t confirmed one of the governor’s judicial picks since it rejected 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder’s nomination by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman to the Utah Court of Appeals in 2008 partly because of Hilder’s rulings on gun issues.
Three people — including the grandmother of a young girl killed in a traffic accident — spoke against Conklin during the confirmation hearing, accusing her of being biased against fathers.
Julie Anderson said her son had fought the girl’s mother, Brandi Stilke, for custody of 3-year-old Aubree Jo Anderson, but Conklin ignored evidence of Stilke’s drug use and granted her joint custody of the girl and her sister.
Aubree Jo was killed in February 2011 when Stilke blacked out and drove off the road, hitting a brick wall at 48 mph. Stilke pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony.
“Ms. Conklin was the catalyst that caused my Aubree Jo’s death and my family’s pain,” Anderson said.
In 2012, the Legislature passed “Aubree Jo’s Law,” intended to put mothers and fathers on equal footing in custody fights.
“Her biases against fathers in custody cases have brought about the death of a child and the creation of a new law,” Anderson said. “I feel these two events alone make her unsuitable as a judge, but we have to remember she will be in a court that serves many people in the 2nd District.”
Conklin said she read about Aubree Jo’s death the weekend after the accident and went to her office to review the case.
“Given the information I had,” she testified, “I don’t think I could have made a different ruling.”
The emergency order sought by Anderson’s son required proof of immediate harm, but the evidence of drug use presented was at least a year or two old, Conklin said. Stilke, who had been on probation for a retail theft charge, had passed random drug tests four to six times a month and as recently as a week before the hearing. There had been no charges for drugs.
Conklin said she told attorneys that if Stilke failed a drug test, they should contact her immediately so she could change the order. The accident occurred several months later.
“I wish I had a crystal ball or Magic 8 Ball in some of these cases, so I can see what would happen in the future,” Conklin said. “Our goal as a system should be to do the best we can to prevent things like this from happening, but given those facts and those circumstances, I did the best I could.”
The committee also had worries about Conklin’s finances.
“There were some fairly consequential concerns when we took a deep dive into looking at her financial statements and history,” said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, a member of the confirmation committee who voted for Conklin.
Under the rules, that information is confidential.
Jones said she and Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, agreed that Conklin’s nomination shouldn’t go forward.
Despite his no vote in committee, Jenkins said Conklin deserved an up-or-down verdict from the full Senate. But after the GOP caucus, her name was pulled.
“We didn’t want to embarrass her,” Jenkins said. “She was a nice lady, very qualified. Just didn’t make it through.”