Protecting the Critical Role of our Fair and Impartial Courts

by Stephen W. Owens
It is a pleasure to take over the reins of the Utah State Bar from Nate Alder, our outgoing President, who has done an extraordinary job. It is also delightful to associate with our very
competent, hard-working, and experienced Bar Commission and Bar Staff (including John Baldwin, Richard Dibblee, and Connie Howard).
I love lawyers and the law. My dad was a lawyer. My brother is a lawyer. I also have plenty of relatives who have found themselves on the other (criminal) side of the law! I will always speak up to defend the value of lawyers to society and their important role in preventing and peacefully solving problems.

At our recent Summer Bar Convention in Sun Valley, we were honored to have former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speak to about 600 Utah lawyers and their
family members. She declared that “judges are not politicians in robes” and “for judges, it is more important to be right rather than popular.”
Justice O’Connor paid tribute to Utah’s merit-selection system for choosing judges, whereby we avoid the significant conflicts of interests inherent in raising money and campaigning for
judicial elections. However, she warned of a blurring of the separation of powers between the three co-equal branches of government and asked us to stand up for and educate the public about the importance of protecting our fair and impartial state courts.
When I stand before a judge to obtain a significant ruling, I do not want that judge thinking to him or herself, “If I rule in favor of Mr. Owens’s client, I may face retaliation, upset the governor,
a legislator, or the press, or jeopardize the funding of our Courts.” Instead, I want the judge thinking to him or herself, “On the facts before me, what do the law and justice require?”
Judges need not be immune from criticism, but they absolutely must not be ideologically intimidated. Their decisional independence cannot be compromised.
Recently the ABA conducted a summit and completed a report on protecting our fair and impartial courts. The report and other resources are available online at
I encourage you to review this information and to preach its message to others, including school children, community groups, and your elected officials.
Other ways to protect our courts include making sure that:
• Our courts are adequately funded, including reasonable
judicial salaries and sufficient, competent staff for
our judges.
• The judicial selection process is respectful and fair to
applicants, and not so narrow as to prevent non-traditional
applicants from being appointed.
• Judicial retention reviews are entirely apolitical and fair.
• Our clients understand the judicial process so hopefully
they can feel that the process was fair, regardless
of the final outcome.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve. Thank you for the key
role that you play in our peaceful society. Feel free to contact
me at any time at or 801-983-9800.

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