In 1936, Reva Beck Bosone became the first woman elected to a judgeship in Utah.
Christine Durham became the state’s first female trial court judge in 1978 and the first woman to serve on the Utah Supreme Court four years later.
And now, the state judiciary has reached another milestone: The Utah Court of Appeals for the first time has a majority female membership — four women and three men.
Two new appointees took seats on the Appeals Court this month — assistant U.S. attorney Diana Hagen and 3rd District Judge Ryan Harris — replacing retired Judges Stephen Roth and J. Frederic Voros Jr.
The new judges joined Michele Christiansen, David Mortensen, Gregory Orme, Jill Pohlman and Kate Toomey on the bench.
Diversity has an impact on the legal profession and would-be lawyers, serving as inspiration and bringing a greater variety of perspective to the courts, judges and legal scholars say.
With a female majority, younger people don’t look at a spot on the bench as a “token seat,” Pohlman said. Mortensen said upcoming generations will see the judiciary as a pathway open to everyone.
And Durham, who called the new majority a historical milestone, said, “It sends a message that women in the courts, the legal profession and society are recognized as having important roles to play in public service.”
However, she said, there is still a significant gender gap and “there are many milestones still to be reached.” Durham pointed out that only two women — herself and Jill Parrish, who is now a federal judge — have sat on the the Utah Supreme Court.
- Across the state, male judges outnumber women 151 to 48
- On the Utah Supreme Court, it’s four men and one woman
- It’s four women and three men on the Utah Court of Appeals
- In district courts, male judges outnumber women 59 to 12
- In juvenile courts, male judges outnumber women to 17 to 14
- In justice courts, male judges outnumber women 68 to 17
- Source: Utah State Courts
Nationally, about 31 percent of state court judges in the United States were female in 2016, according to the National Association of Women Judges.
RonNell Andersen Jones, a University of Utah law professor, said achieving gender diversity on the bench in the state has been challenging. She noted that the first woman was admitted to the Utah State Bar in 1872, and it took more than a century to reach 100 female members — 28 women graduated from law school in 1976 and pushed the number from 91 to 119.
About a fourth of the Utah State Bar membership is female, Jones said. In addition, the percentage of female law students in Utah is lower than the national average, she said.
Data submitted by law schools to the American Bar Association showed women made up a little more than 50 percent of students as of December 2016. In the 2016-2017 academic year, women made up about 42 percent of the U.’s law students and 38 percent of the law students at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, according to figures provided by those schools.
Religious and societal factors play a part in those numbers, including the fact that women in Utah have more children and have them at younger ages than the national average, Jones said. The percentages lead to a smaller pool of women who are potential candidates for a judgeship, she said.
“These things take time,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Jones said the numbers are important because having judges who represent the population and a range of life experiences enhances trust in their decisions.
She also said women add perspective to decisions but not just because they’re female — a view taken by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. O’Connor said differences in her background that she was bringing to the court were more germane than her gender.
“The important fact about my appointment is not that I will decide cases as a woman,” O‘Connor said, “but that I am a woman who will get to decide cases.”
Jones, who was a law clerk for O’Connor, cited the justice’s rural upbringing and her tenure as an Arizona legislator as factors that added diversity to the body.
Louisa M. A. Heiny, a U. law professor and co-author of “Judicial Process: Cases and Materials,” which covers judicial selection and the judicial decision-making process, said when citizens see judges who look like them and have had experiences like them, they are more likely to accept their decisions.
Varying perspectives based on different backgrounds — such as where a jurist grew up or went to school — also help judges sitting in panels render their decisions, Heiny said. (The Utah Court of Appeals judges sit in panels of three.)
“A diversity of experience makes for interesting debate and discussion,” Heiny said. “You get a better result that way.”
The Court of Appeals judges were unanimous that gender is just one of the many factors that make a court diverse — and the more diversity in the legal field, the better.
“We need to encourage people from all different backgrounds not only to become judges,” Hagen said, ”but to become lawyers in the first place.”
The judges also agree there will come a time when a court with a majority of women judges — or an all-female bench — will be common enough that it won’t be considered a noteworthy occurrence.