Powerhouse attorney Christine Durham — a former Utah Supreme Court chief justice who built a reputation from challenging ingrained discrimination against women and bias in the judicial process — will join the legal team representing the parents of slain University of Utah track star Lauren McCluskey.
The addition was announced at a Monday news conference shortly after Durham formally signed on as a lawyer in the federal case. Her participation comes as a bit of a surprise, as her first work on such a high-profile lawsuit since her retirement from the bench.
“The treatment of Lauren McCluskey by university authorities in a period of grave danger and terror in her life is disappointing in the extreme," the former chief justice said, “and, in the end, led to her horrifying death.”
Durham noted, too, that she’s deeply committed to the case and believes it represents “a profound injustice.”
Since it was filed this summer, the $56 million lawsuit has drawn national attention. In their filing, McCluskey’s parents allege that staff at the school ignored their daughter’s repeated reports of harassment and could have prevented her murder had they intervened.
McCluskey, 21, had told campus officers several times in October 2018 that Melvin S. Rowland, a man she briefly dated, had been extorting and threatening her since she broke off their relationship. Police did little to investigate, according to independent investigators who reviewed the case. And weeks later, McCluskey was shot to death before Rowland turned the gun on himself.
“I’ve spent a lifetime being concerned about the status of women in society and the disadvantages they face,” said Durham, now 74. “The issue of domestic violence has really been at the top of that list for so many years.”
In 1982, Durham was the first woman in the state to be appointed to the Supreme Court and sat on the bench for 35 years — 10 as chief justice. She retired in November 2017 and has worked at the firm, Zimmerman Booher, since. She’s also heading the Conviction Integrity Unit with the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office focused on reviewing cases of convicted individuals who say they’re innocent.
Most of her work has focused on access and how women, particularly victims of assault or domestic violence, can be mistreated in the legal process.
Durham will be joined by others from Zimmerman Booher, including former Court of Appeals Judge Fred Voros and attorneys Dick Baldwin, Alexandra Mareschal and Julie Nelson.
Like the former chief justice, Voros, too, has a lengthy legal career. He served for eight years on the bench, overseeing more than 1,200 appeals before retiring in 2017. Before that, he worked for 18 years in the Utah attorney general’s office in the Criminal Appeals Division. (Voros hasn’t worked there in 10 years, but he is going up against his former colleagues in joining the McCluskey case, because the attorney general’s office is representing the U. in the lawsuit.)
Both Voros and Durham also taught law students at the University of Utah.
Durham said there’s much that she loves about the U. and noted that her husband’s grandfather was once president there. Four of her children have also attended the university. And she received an honorary degree from the school.
“This institution has enriched my life personally, in addition to the incalculable good it does in our community,” she added. “But even institutions, like people that we love, can disappoint.”
Despite “reasonable and well-established responsibilities under federal law,” Durham said, the university failed McCluskey. She hopes her team will bring needed appellate expertise to the team already representing the McCluskeys at Parker & McConkie and led by attorney Jim McConkie.
McCluskey’s parents said Monday that they’re “profoundly grateful” to have Durham working on their case. Jill McCluskey called it “an all-star legal team” with the ability to improve campus safety for years to come.
In particular, Durham will be arguing against the university’s controversial motion to dismiss the McCluskeys’ lawsuit when it comes to oral argument before the U.S. District Court. The school has maintained that it did not have an obligation to protect the student-athlete under Title IX law because her attacker wasn’t a student or employee at the school.
Durham noted: “We look forward to addressing these issues in court.”