Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill Pohlman wants to keep politics out of the court

The newest member of Utah’s highest court, Justice Pohlman, says her experience as a woman in law — and a mother — has shaped her view on justice.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Supreme Court justice Jill Pohlman, Sept. 27, 2022. Pohlman, who was unanimously confirmed by the Utah Senate in August, is the most recent addition to the Utah Supreme Court and she brings to the court its first-ever female majority.

Jill Pohlman is not like other soccer moms.

In addition to bringing snacks and foldable chairs to cheer from the sidelines, Pohlman hauls legal briefs to read while her kids kick the ball up and down the field.

“A few of the coaches are always like, ‘What are you reading about today? What’s the case about today?’” Pohlman said, laughing during an interview inside the Utah Supreme Court courtroom.

Always on the run, Pohlman’s life became a little bit busier in August, when she added one more title before her name: Utah Supreme Court justice.

Pohlman is the third woman on Utah’s five-justice court, joining Paige Petersen and Diana Hagen. The three justices make up the state court’s first-ever female majority.

In the latter part of her two-and-a-half decades as a jurist, most recently as a judge on the Utah Court of Appeals, Pohlman has felt her identity as a mother influence her approach to the law.

“I developed a different sense of empathy, just understanding that people come to this earth with so many different qualities, and talents, and struggles,” Pohlman said. “I see that in my own kids, and I ... see that in the people they interact with. And so I think, also when I see people that come into the justice system, I recognize that not everyone comes from the same place.”

Pohlman isn’t sure if any of her kids will follow in her footsteps, although her 14-year-old son has expressed interest in pursuing law if he doesn’t make it as an NFL kicker. Career-wise, she didn’t take after her parents, either.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jill Pohlman sits with her family in the Senate chamber after being confirmed to the Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

The justice’s dad was a school teacher, and worked a second job as a nighttime janitor, while Pohlman’s mom operated a dance studio out of their basement before moving on to work for her family’s small business.

“I came from a neighborhood that had no lawyers — I didn’t know lawyers, I didn’t have any in my family,” Pohlman said. “But I was introduced to the law in fourth grade. Someone just took me to a courthouse, and said, this could be what you do someday.”

The trip with a school group to a courthouse sparked in Pohlman an insatiable interest in law.

At recess, she recounted to the Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee in July, an elementary-age Pohlman would convince her classmates to play “People’s Court,” replicating the popular 1980s reality court TV show. Pohlman said she would invent scenarios, and assign classmates to act as plaintiff, defendant, witness, bailiff or Judge Joseph Wapner.

In the minority

When Pohlman began attending law school at the University of Utah, although she became acquainted with considerably more lawyers than she knew as a child, few of them were women.

According to a Utah Center for Legal Inclusion analysis of Utah Bar survey data, although women make up half the state’s population, less than 30% of people working in the legal profession in 2020 were women.

When she started in law, Pohlman said it felt like there was little space for women in the profession. “I had people treating me like I was just getting the job just because they need a woman,” Pohlman said.

Prior to being named a judge, Pohlman clerked for federal district court Judge David Winder, and worked as a partner at the law firm Stoel Rives. While there, she litigated several well-known Utah cases.

Pohlman 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 worked as vice chair and general counsel for former President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns in Utah.

While working as a private practice attorney, Pohlman said she didn’t have many mentors.

“I also would find myself many times in boardrooms, and courtrooms, as the only woman in the room,” Pohlman said. “And that can be a little bit intimidating, and you have to make sure that your voice is heard. But there were times, depending on people I was dealing with, who I felt like just didn’t want to listen because I was a woman.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Supreme Court justice Jill Pohlman, Sept. 27, 2022. Pohlman, who was unanimously confirmed by the Utah Senate in August, is the most recent addition to the Utah Supreme Court and she brings to the court its first-ever female majority.

Being a woman attorney became even more difficult, Pohlman said, after she became a mother. As a partner at the firm, she had been working long hours, and she said she couldn’t maintain that time commitment and be the mom she wanted to be.

“So I went to them and I said I want to keep working, I don’t want to quit. But I also want to be home and spend some time with my child, and not be here every weekend and every night,” Pohlman said.

They agreed to reduce her schedule to 60% of what it had been, but she often worked nights and weekends when her baby was asleep.

“So often women feel like they have one choice, and it’s either to stay and maybe give up something they want in return for their family, or just quit and leave it all behind,” Pohlman said. “I was able to find a middle ground there that made a lot of sense both for the law firm and for me.”

The new majority

Pohlman, who was appointed by Gov. Spencer Cox in June, is the fifth woman ever to be confirmed to the state’s supreme court since Utah was granted statehood in 1896. The first woman Utah Supreme Court justice, Christine Durham, was appointed to the court by former Gov. Scott Matheson in 1982.

In August, Durham told The Salt Lake Tribune that although she doesn’t have a close personal relationship with Pohlman, she said the justice has “a reputation for a very impressive work ethic.” Durham also noted that she has spent a number of years reviewing Pohlman’s work, which she said is “meticulous” and “well-informed.”

“It’s not something I ever would have expected to see in my career — to see three women on this bench of five,” Pohlman said. “That definitely was a surprise to me, but one that I think was welcome and I was excited about — both if I had just observed it, but also really excited to be a part of it.”

Durham, who didn’t see another woman — Jill Parrish — appointed to the court for more than two decades after she took on the role, was “joyful.”

“The interesting thing about the Utah Supreme Court is that it is so visible, and an awareness of who’s there is elevated,” Durham said. “So it really makes a statement about the fact that women can be judges and that they belong on the highest court in the state.”

The female majority on the court signifies that women are more than a “token selection,” Pohlman said.

“I feel like when you turn to a court and it becomes a majority-woman, it’s saying, look, it’s not about the gender at this point,” Pohlman said. “It’s about the qualifications and about what they can bring to the court.”

Keeping politics out of the court

Pohlman joins the Utah Supreme Court as it is expected to hear a slate of cases with historical significance.

Among them is a lawsuit challenging the state’s blocked abortion trigger law; one objecting to a law that is currently on hold that bans transgender girls from participating in high school sports; and another arguing that Utah lawmakers illegally gerrymandered recently redrawn congressional boundaries.

The court’s newest justice has been critical of the politicization of federal courts, and said in considering upcoming cases, she hopes to avoid that perception.

Pohlman laid out the ways she thinks the court can do that: Ask questions that are legal-based and without political bend; address all arguments presented to the court in written opinions; clearly explain in those opinions how the court reached its conclusion. She also avoids discussing her own views, which, Pohlman said, won’t drive her legal decisions.

She added that although she wouldn’t want to sit on a bench with all women, noting that she thinks the male perspective is important, it’s beneficial to increase the diversity of judges presiding over Utah courts.

“I think the more diversity you have, whatever it is, people just come to the bench with different experiences and they approach problems in different ways,” Pohlman said. “And so I think it’s incredibly important to have women’s voices there.”

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