Should it matter what a Utah Supreme Court justice’s religion is?
Later this month Gov. Gary Herbert will be given a list of seven candidates to fill the seat of Utah Supreme Court Justice Ronald Nehring, who is retiring after 11 years on Utah’s highest court. Justice Nehring served with distinction on the court after an accomplished stint on the state’s 3rd District Court bench.
He also is not LDS.
So why does that matter? When the Judicial Nominating Commission, and then the governor, chooses Nehring’s replacement, they no doubt will seek out the finest legal minds in the state, those who have both the knowledge and temperament to literally decide how Utahns live their lives. While the U.S. Supreme Court is the final say in this nation, state laws that do not violate the U.S. Constitution are left to state courts to interpret. The Utah Supreme Court is the final word in those cases.
It matters because Utah, arguably, is a theocracy. Mormons dominate electoral politics. In a state that once had a Jewish governor (Simon Bamberger, 1917-21), it now consistently sees Mormons hold every statewide and congressional office. In a state that is roughly 60 percent active LDS, the Legislature is somewhere around 90 percent active LDS members, many of whom have held or currently hold clergy positions in the church.
Those in power are quick to say that they are not taking orders from their church, and there are no secret phone calls or meetings to push the church’s political agenda. That’s probably true, mainly because they don’t need to. The LDS Church has been advising them since they began Primary classes at 3 years old. (And it didn’t stop the church from having seven registered lobbyists at the past legislative session.)
LDS domination of electoral politics is neither illegal nor easily changed. The ward is the most prominent organizational structure in most Utah neighborhoods, and voters — as well as the party delegates who choose candidates — are free to pick who they want. Unless the advantages of diversity becomes more apparent to them, the domination will persist.
The judiciary is necessarily more insulated from popular politics. Supreme Court justices are first appointed, not elected (although they do stand for retention elections where no justice has ever lost). Those who appoint them have the duty to foster a diverse court, and in this case that means replacing Nehring with another non-Mormon. That is not to sell short the remaining members of the court. They have acted and will continue to act in the interest of all Utahns.
Utah is forever entwined with the worldwide religion headquartered here, and the benefits of that association are long and fruitful. But what Utah is, and what it will be, is the product of our diverse population, and its highest court should reflect that.
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