Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday announced that he’s picked Diana Hagen, an appeals court judge who also spent years as a federal prosecutor, to fill a vacancy on the Utah Supreme Court.
If confirmed by the state Senate, Hagen would replace retired Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas.
Hagen has served on the Utah Court of Appeals since former Gov. Gary Herbert appointed her to that role in June 2017. Hagen was also a federal prosecutor for more than 17 years, working on high-profile trials such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping and the murder of Millard County Sheriff’s Deputy Josie Greathouse Fox, according to a news release.
“She’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet. To be in a room, to spend time with Judge Hagen, will brighten your day,” Cox said during a news conference. “She is incredibly qualified. She’s the right person for this job.”
Hagen is Cox’s first nominee to the Utah Supreme Court, but the governor will soon have to search for another justice to replace Justice Thomas Lee, who will retire at the end of July.
Hagen told reporters that if she’s confirmed, Utahns can expect her to be hard-working and respectful.
“I will keep in mind the importance of these cases to the people who come before us and to the public at large,” she said. “And they can expect that I will apply the law faithfully and uphold the rule of law in a non-political, non-ideological way.”
Hagen, an Odgen native, earned her law degree from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1998 and later clerked with U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell before beginning her career as a federal prosecutor.
She’s also been involved with numerous legal and community groups, serving as president of the Women Lawyers of Utah, the Salt Lake County Bar Association and the Utah Chapter of the Bar Association, according to the release. Hagen was a member of a state task force on dating violence and spent six years as a Girl Scouts troop leader, Cox said.
She’s taught appellate practice at the University of Utah’s law school and coached moot court teams, as well.
“As a jurist, she’s off-the-charts brilliant,” Chief Justice Matt Durrant told reporters. “She has an incisive, careful mind, and she is deeply committed to deciding cases in a fair way and free of any bias.”
Hagen described her philosophy on the bench as one of “judicial restraint,” explaining that she respects her limited role and tries to apply the law to the facts of a case “without exerting any sort of will or desire for a particular outcome.”
Cox said that quality was one of the reasons he picked Hagen from among the pool of seven nominees for the Supreme Court vacancy. Another priority for the governor was to find someone whose background and knowledge would strengthen the five-judge team that serves on the Utah Supreme Court, and he pointed to Hagen’s criminal experience as something that would enrich the panel.
Jeff Hunt, a First Amendment attorney in Salt Lake City, said Hagen worked at his practice before she became a prosecutor, handling a number of free speech and media cases. He particularly recalls her ability to “cut through all the noise and get to the heart of a legal issue,” as well as her thoughtfulness and even-keeled temperament.
In addition to being knowledgeable in the law, she’s also just a great person, he said.
“She’s a warm human being, as well,” Hunt said. “It’s not just an intellectual game to her. She understands that people have come to the court with real problems, and she understands that these are important issues that affect the lives of real people.”
State Sen. Todd Weiler, who’s an attorney and chairs the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee, said he doesn’t expect opposition to Hagen’s appointment, adding that she’s “well-known and respected” in the legal community.
However, it’s still early in the confirmation process and the Senate will solicit public comments about Hagen’s appointment, he said.
The Senate’s role in the process is to make sure Hagen is qualified for the Supreme Court post, and, Weiler, said it seems clear that she is.
“I think the rest is probably a little bit subjective,” the Woods Cross Republican said. “The legislators, of course, are jealous guardians of their authority to make law. And I think they’re always suspicious of anyone that they fear might try to step on our toes and try to make the law from the bench.”
Weiler predicted that Hagen’s confirmation process will be “more cordial” than the hearings currently underway for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. But, he said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if we get some spillover,” predicting that state lawmakers might ask Hagen how she defines a woman, a question also recently faced by Jackson.
Weiler said the confirmation hearing will likely take place in mid-to-late April.
Hagen lives in Ogden with her husband, son and daughter.
She said when Herbert named her to the appeals court, her son, Archer, spent an entire week addressing her at home as “your honor.”
“I’m hoping that maybe if I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed,” she said jokingly, “I’ll get to be called ‘justice’ for a week.”