Washington • In a surprise move days before then-Sen. Orrin Hatch left office, the U.S. Senate voted to name the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City after him.
Hatch, who had served in the Senate 41 years, was taking his last turn presiding over the chamber and was humbled by the move.
“I didn’t realize that was going to happen this morning,” Hatch said. “I’m very honored.”
The Senate approved the move by a voice vote. And then nothing happened.
The House didn’t take up the measure and the legislation expired when Congress adjourned. Hatch entered retirement, and no one since has taken up the effort to revive the tribute to the long-serving senator.
The courthouse, a giant glass-and-steel box in downtown that replaced the aging building next door, remains nameless.
There are some who still think the courthouse, opened in 2014, should be adorned with Hatch’s name, but others continue to push for it to be named after George Sutherland, a former U.S. senator from Utah and the only resident of the state to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I just think it’s appropriate to name the courthouse after a judge to begin with, and there’s no higher calling than being a Supreme Court justice,” said Andrew Morse, a shareholder at Snow, Christensen & Martineau who has advocated for years to name the court building after Sutherland.
“It would bolster the status of the Utah bar if they had a one of their preeminent members remembered that way and honored that way,” Morse added.
The debate over naming the building has existed since before the courthouse was finished, but there may be interest to settle it soon.
Why, or why not, name it for Hatch?
Hatch, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and served in the Senate longer than any other Republican, had an immense impact on the federal judiciary, including a role in the confirmation of every sitting Supreme Court justice and several who have retired. That’s not to mention his effort to shepherd through hundreds of district and appellate judges — including most of Utah’s federal judges.
When the Senate voted in December 2018 to name the courthouse after Hatch, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, praised Hatch for giving a “lifetime of tremendous service to the United States of America.”
Sullivan brought up the one-line bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the chamber passed it by voice vote. No one expressed opposition.
The House, though, didn’t touch the measure. Its rules prohibit naming a federal building after a sitting member, and Hatch’s staff noted that it would likely come up again in January with the new congressional session.
And no one has filed legislation to try again, though there is interest.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who now holds Hatch’s old seat and was endorsed by his predecessor, didn’t know about the idea of naming the courthouse but is on board.
“That would be a great honor for him and certainly would be justified by his extraordinary record in the Senate,” Romney said in a brief interview.
And that move could be bipartisan.
“I didn’t agree with everything that Orrin Hatch did,” said Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah. “But I think he was an honorable public servant and did a lot for our country and a lot for the state of Utah. And I think that would be a fitting honor to recognize him in that way.”
McConnell’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
While Hatch said he was honored in 2018 by the idea, years earlier he said he didn’t want to be part of it.
“I’ve never asked to have my name on anything. Period,” he said in 2013.
There are definitely those who would oppose such a move.
Courthouses “should be named after people who were exemplary in their legal and judicial career,” said Pat Shea, a Salt Lake City attorney and Democrat who ran against Hatch in 1994. “That does not include legislators.”
There’s also the argument against naming a courthouse after Hatch that replaced one named after Sen. Frank Moss, a Democrat whom Hatch defeated in 1976 after telling voters that the senator’s 18 years in office was too long.
Shea backs the idea of naming the building after Sutherland, given that Hatch’s supporters are already rallying to build a center in his name on South Temple. “So why have two significant geographic points in Utah named after a single individual?”
Why, or why not, name it for Sutherland?
Sutherland was born in England and moved to the Utah territory, where he eventually won a seat in the state Legislature, then the U.S. House and on to the Senate.
He later led the American Bar Association, and President Warren Harding named him to the Supreme Court in 1922. The Senate confirmed him the same day.
Sutherland served on the court for 16 years before retiring.
His supporters say he’d be a better name to be emblazoned on the court.
“That just seems a better choice to me,” said Salt Lake City attorney John Lund.
Morse, who has led the charge for Sutherland, who died in 1942, said Hatch served his state well for four decades, but Sutherland is a more appropriate name for the honor.
“George Sutherland was a preeminent lawyer, a trial lawyer, very apt at trying cases, represented people from all walks of life, rich and poor, criminal and civil litigants,” Morse said. “And he was a very fine Supreme Court justice.”