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Washington • President Barack Obama on Thursday nominated Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill Parrish to the federal district court for the state to replace Judge Dee Benson, who took senior status in January.
Parrish, who has served on Utah's high court since 2003, would be only the second female judge on the Utah federal court, joining Judge Tena Campbell if confirmed. When she joined the state Supreme Court, it was the first time in history that two women served on the panel. Justice Christine Durham has served since appointed by Gov. Scott Matheson in 1982.
The White House announced Parrish's nomination Thursday evening along with six others.
"I am honored to put forward these highly qualified candidates for the federal bench," Obama said in a statement. "They will be distinguished public servants and valuable additions to the United States District Court."
If Parrish is confirmed, it would mean two vacancies on the Utah Supreme Court for Gov. Gary Herbert to fill. Justice Ronald Nehring is retiring and heard his final case earlier this month.
Herbert said Thursday, before the announcement of Parrish's nomination to the federal bench, that he considers the qualifications of the applicant and not religious, racial or gender diversity.
"I'm looking for the best people," Herbert said during his monthly KUED news conference. "Clearly, if we need some gender diversity and all things being equal, that could be a tie-breaker situation. … But, again, I want the best person on the bench, whether they are Mormon, non-Mormon, Christian, non-Christian, male, female, it just doesn't matter to me."
Parrish, when she was interviewed by lawmakers shortly after her nomination to the state court by Gov. Mike Leavitt in 2003, was asked what role gender played on the bench.
She said she would like to say gender played no role, but that "to the extent that I can be a role model to other women, that's a good thing."
Before taking the bench, the Ogden native and Yale Law School graduate practiced commercial litigation at the Salt Lake City law firm of Parr, Brown, Gee & Loveless and clerked for then-federal Judge David K. Winder. Parrish also served as an assistant U.S. attorney, where she supervised the financial litigation unit, and is a past president of the Utah chapter of the Federal Bar Association.
She currently is a member of the state Judicial Council and is chairwoman of the state law library oversight committee.
Among the notable decisions she authored for the Supreme Court was one in her first year on the bench that concluded members of the Native American Church could use peyote without fear of prosecution.
"Justice Parrish has the kind of broad legal experience that has made the federal bench in Utah so outstanding," Sen Orrin Hatch said Thursday. "Justice Parrish is well known and highly regarded in Utah's legal community, and I know my colleagues in the Senate will respect her qualifications as much as I do and will ultimately confirm her to this position."
Benson, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, was the judge who sentenced environmentalist Tim DeChristopher to two years in federal prison for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction, sparking protests and criticism over the harsh and what some saw as disparate treatment for the outspoken climate-change activist. The judge, 66, took senior status in January, but has continued to carry a full caseload, though he is required only to manage one-fourth the caseload of an active federal judge.
Robert Gehrke contributed to this report