Gehrke: Camille Neider is not only an excellent lawyer; now she's Utah's first openly LGBTQ judge

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Camille Neider is embraced by her son Cooper in the Senate Chamber in Salt Lake City after being confirmed by the Senate to be a judge in the Second District Court, Wednesday December 20, 2017.

Camille Neider is in a fairly unique position. She not only has prosecuted a death penalty case, she’s also certified to handle the defense in a death penalty case.

She’s been a law clerk, a public defender, a lawyer in private practice and has handled hundreds of cases.

On Wednesday, Neider was joined by her family — her parents, her three sons Cooper, Tate and Beck, and her wife, Nancy — as the Utah Senate confirmed her to be the newest judge in the Second District and also the first openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender judge on the state bench.

It’s something that, even a few years ago, would have been unfathomable in Utah — a state where the Legislature was the tip of the spear in the legal fight against same-sex marriage; where there was no law to protect LGBT Utahns from discrimination in the workplace or housing; and where we have yet to pass a functional hate-crimes bill.

Yet on Wednesday, some of the senators who were most vocal about going to court to fight against people like Camille and Nancy’s right to marry voted to approve Neider’s spot on the court representing Weber, Davis and Morgan counties.

“I think it is a red letter day not just in LGBTQ Utah history, but in the entire history of the state,” said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, a member of the Judicial Confirmation Committee and the only openly gay state lawmaker. “As much as I criticize the governor on everything … I think there’s something wonderful about Utah. We are definitely a red state, but we’re not a redneck state, and I think that this was a good test.”

Neider, naturally, downplays the significance — she is not a gay judge, she is a judge.

And that’s true. Gov. Gary Herbert didn’t nominate her and the Senate didn’t confirm her because of who she loves. She will soon be sworn in as a state judge because she worked hard, built impeccable credentials, developed a depth and breadth of knowledge and experience, and a top-notch intellect.

“I hope that people look at it as maybe a barrier that’s over, but truthfully it doesn’t define me in any way, shape or form, because it doesn’t define how I do my job,” she said.

Neider earned her undergraduate degree and law degree from Brigham Young University, did four clerkships including one in London, worked as a public defender in Utah County, and spent nine years as a deputy Weber county attorney where she handled felony criminal trials before going into private practice. For the past year, she has also served on the Utah Sentencing Commission. It was the third time she had been a finalist for a spot on the bench.

And she did all of it in the face of a culture that has been hostile to people like her.

“In my memory, we’ve never received [a nominee] who has worked on all three sides of the law,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful, the chairman of the confirmation committee.

Neider was rated “very, very high” on surveys of her colleagues and the legal community, Weiler said, and he had never seen so many letters of support for any other nominee, and several judges also expressed support for the nomination.

Still, Neider didn’t skate through the process. Two senators — Allen Christensen of North Ogden and David Buxton of Roy — voted against the nomination. Christensen said Neider’s sexual orientation played a role in his vote.

“That bothered me a little but it was more that her politics didn’t line up with mine,” Christensen said.

Neider ran for the state House as a Democrat in 2014 and took progressive positions on things like a living wage and addressing air pollution.

Buxton didn’t explain his vote. When asked, he said: “I just felt like we had an opportunity to have a better candidate.”

Neider’s appointment isn’t just important because it is a first. It’s important because it sends a powerful message to others who might someday follow in her footsteps, that they can be who they are, even in Utah, and succeed.

Dabakis said earlier this month he attended the first-ever LGBTQ youth conference with hundreds of young people from across the state. Those kids are facing challenges, and have more ahead, he said.

“I could see that they needed to know that there are successful LGBTQ people and they need not worry that they’re not going to make it because of that,” he said. “The fact that you can have somebody as terrific [as Neider] and as great a lawyer and now a judge, it gives them the confidence that they don’t live in a state where people are going to be discriminated against and they can go as far as their intellect and hard work will take them.”