High turnover allows Gov. Herbert to shape Utah’s judiciary

SALT LAKE CITY -- Over the past seven years, Utah’s judicial branch has undergone a dramatic turnover in judges. In fact, some say Utah’s judicial branch has been re-shaped.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Judge Paige Petersen as his pick to be the newest justice on the Utah Supreme Court.

She currently serves in Utah’s Third District Court.

“I promise I will work my absolute hardest, I will do my absolute best to serve the people of Utah on the Supreme Court, and I will interpret the law with fidelity,” she said.

Judge Peterson’s confirmation is subject to senate approval, but she is the 80th judge to be appointed by the governor. Eighty out of Utah’s 116 judges have been picked by him.

“It’s one of the most important things that I do that most people don't ever ask me about,” Herbert said.

The governor’s picks have helped shape the judiciary in Utah. That was noted by Justice Thomas Lee.

“The tremendous impact that you’ve had on our branch of government, on the judiciary: What an impressive thing to have appointed the vast majority of our judges,” Lee said.

Sen. Todd Weiler, a Republican representing Woods Cross, spoke about Herbert’s influence on Utah’s judiciary.

“The reason he’s picked 80 is he’s been governor for over seven years now, and a lot of our judges were reaching retirement age,” he said.

The courts have seen a lot of turnover in Utah. But Weiler, who chairs the committee that confirms judges, insists they are not picking ideologues.

“We don’t want liberal or conservative judges legislating from the bench,” he said. “We want them to interpret fairly the laws that are on the books.”

He said they want fair-minded judges who will uphold Utah’s laws.

“We don’t want to confirm a judge who is gonna say, ‘I don’t want to impose the death penalty,’” he said. “That’s a big deal for us because that’s our law. The judicial philosophy is: will you support the policies and the laws that are promulgated by the legislature?"

The governor has now appointed four of the five sitting Supreme Court justices. With several years left in his time as governor, he may get to pick another one.

“Could be. Who knows what’ll happen between now and 2020, and then if I run for re-election, again, who knows it might extend beyond that,” Herbert said, clarifying in a follow-up question that he was kidding about running again.