Judge Paige Petersen receives committee support

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Supreme Court nominee Paige Petersen looks back and smiles at friends and family who attended her Senate Judicial Confirmation committee hearing at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday November 13, 2017.

A Senate committee Monday unanimously advanced the nomination of 3rd District Judge Paige Petersen, leaving her one vote away from taking a seat on the Utah Supreme Court.

“I am thrilled,” Petersen said after the hearing. “But I’m reserving my full excitement until the confirmation process is done. I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch.”

The full Senate is set to vote on Petersen’s nomination Wednesday. If confirmed, the 45-year-old will fill the seat vacated by the retirement of Justice Christine Durham.

“Talk about pressure,” Petersen said to the seven-member Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee. “How can a mortal human being live up to the standard she has set?”

Durham, who officially leaves her job Thursday, is Utah’s longest-serving judge and was the first woman to serve on Utah’s high court.

The good news, Petersen said, is that neither she, nor any woman nominated to the bench has to fill Durham’s ground-breaking shoes.

“That is her gift to me and so many others,” Petersen said with gratitude. “We don’t have to go through uncharted territory because she blazed a trail.”

Committee members put Petersen through more than an hour of questions Monday, asking her about everything from her international legal experience to whether her background as a prosecutor leaves her with any biases and how she spends her free time.

But it was far from a contentious exchange, each seemed more than happy to advance the nominee, whose friends and family, including her parents, a sister and two young nieces made a generous showing of support.

“We will be well served by your desire to seek and find and do those things that are independent and make the decisions that are tough to make,” Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal said.

Petersen beat out seven other candidates to earn Gov. Gary Herbert’s nomination. Herbert championed Petersen’s solid work ethic and “great intellectual firepower,” and praised her dedication to the rule of law.

Petersen said she is humbled by the governor’s confidence in her and told Herbert she had sought the post because she wants the opportunity to think carefully about the cases before her, rather than have to make the more on-the-spot decisions she does in district court.

That doesn’t mean she thinks a job on the Utah Supreme Court would be “easy,” she said.

“Every question you get is hard,” she said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to think about difficult legal questions.”

Raised in Emery County, Peterson earned an associate degree from the College of Eastern Utah and bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah. In 1999, she graduated from Yale Law School.

Petersen first worked as a clerk for an Ohio federal judge and then went on to practice law with a private firm in New York City, before serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.

There Petersen tackled organized crime and international drug trafficking, before serving a two-year stint at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands. Among her trial team’s accomplishments is the successful prosecution of a former Serbian chief of police for the crimes of mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

In 2012, Petersen joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Utah as a prosecutor specializing in violent crime.

Herbert appointed Petersen to the 3rd District Court bench in 2015.

If confirmed, she will be the governor’s 80th state judicial appointment and his fourth to the five-member Supreme Court.