For the first time ever, the Utah Supreme Court has a female majority of justices.
Justice Jill Pohlman was unanimously confirmed by the Utah Senate on Wednesday. Pohlman, who was previously a judge on the Utah Court of Appeals, replaces former Justice Thomas Lee who retired last month.
“I am honored and deeply humbled by this historic appointment to the Utah Supreme Court, and looking forward to serving the citizens of the great state of Utah in this new and important role,” Pohlman said on the Senate floor in front of lawmakers and a full gallery.
Pohlman joins two other female justices — Paige Petersen and Diana Hagen — as well as Chief Justice Matthew Durrant and Associate Chief Justice John Pearce. Her confirmation comes as the Utah Supreme Court is expected to hear landmark cases on abortion, transgender rights and redistricting.
Christine Durham, the first woman to serve on the Utah Supreme Court, said she was “joyful” at the prospect of the court having a female majority. After Durham was confirmed in 1982, there wasn’t another woman appointed to the high court for more than two decades. She later served as Utah’s first female chief justice.
“To now be contemplating the possibility of a majority female court just is so gratifying after all this time,” Durham told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview Tuesday. “It’s long overdue, but I’m really happy that it’s happening.”
Pohlman is just the fifth woman to serve on the five-justice court since Utah became a state in 1896. She was appointed by Gov. Spencer Cox in June.
Although Durham doesn’t have a close personal relationship with Pohlman, she said she has spent a number of years reviewing Pohlman’s work, which Durham noted is “meticulous” and “well-informed.”
“It reflects a lot of dedication and intelligence, both of which are brought to bear on solving problems,” Durham said. “And I also know she has a reputation for a very impressive work ethic.”
Pohlman joins the bench as three high-profile cases are likely to reach the Utah Supreme Court in the coming months.
Among them is a lawsuit from Planned Parenthood Association of Utah challenging the state’s 2020 abortion trigger law, which went into effect in June after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
One month after a Utah district court judge granted a preliminary injunction on the abortion ban in July, the Utah Attorney General’s office last week asked the Utah Supreme Court to allow it to appeal the hold on the law. The court has not yet answered the request.
A lawsuit objecting to a law that took effect in July that bans transgender girls from participating in high school sports may reach the state’s highest court as well. A district court judge is expected to announce soon whether or not he will issue a temporary injunction on the ban.
The third lawsuit arguing that Utah lawmakers illegally gerrymandered recently redrawn congressional boundaries is also expected to eventually reach the Utah Supreme Court. A hearing on a motion to dismiss the case filed by attorneys representing the Legislature and lieutenant governor is scheduled for next week.
In hearings with the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee in July, Pohlman faced questions on her approach to such cases.
Committee Chair Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, asked then whether it’s appropriate for the court to recognize “unenumerated rights” in the Utah Constitution. In response, Pohlman said that beyond looking at the objective meaning of the constitution and other legal documents, “There’s a lot of issues that are ... going to be facing the Supreme Court in the next little while, and so I don’t know that I can answer the question any more precisely.”
She also, in multiple instances during the committee hearings, criticized what she described as a politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“As courts become more political, we see that a lot on the federal scale anyway, I worry that people will stop trusting the courts,” Pohlman said at a July 19 hearing. “And when people stop trusting the courts, I’m not sure where we go.”
Pohlman has served on the Utah Court of Appeals since her appointment by former Gov. Gary Herbert in 2016. She previously clerked for U.S. District Court Chief Judge David Winder and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
While practicing as a private attorney, she represented the Deseret News in its dispute with The Salt Lake Tribune over a Joint Operating Agreement and participated in the independent investigation of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics bribery scandal. Pohlman also sat on the steering committee for former President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign in Utah.
“It is such an honor for me to be given this opportunity to join the Utah Supreme Court and to promote the rule of law at the highest level,” Pohlman said before receiving a standing ovation from the Senate floor and gallery. “I understand and feel the great weight of this responsibility, and I will strive to be worthy of the trust you have placed in me.”