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As a college student in the 1960s, Christine Durham saw cultural and legal changes taking place in the country, especially in the area of civil rights.

Among the "change agents" making a difference were lawyers, which inspired her choice of a career.

"The law seemed to me to be a worthy aspiration and I came to love it," said Durham, now a Utah Supreme Court justice and the state's longest-serving judge.

On Tuesday, Durham announced she plans to retire from the Supreme Court, effective Nov. 16, ending a 35-year tenure there.

Before taking a spot on the high court, she served as a district court judge for four years.

In 1978, Durham became the state's first female judge on a court of general jurisdiction (several women had already served on circuit and juvenile courts in Utah). She also was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court when she was appointed by Gov. Scott Matheson in 1982. In 2002, she became the first woman to head up the state's judiciary as chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, a position she held for 10 years.

Durham led the way for other female jurists in Utah, but she said Tuesday that despite the increase of women on the bench, the percentage — about 30 percent — is still too low. She remains one of only two women to have served on the Utah Supreme Court; Jill Parrish, now a federal judge, was the other.

"I remain discouraged, occasionally, about how far we still have to go," Durham said.

Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant called Durham " a brilliant jurist, a wonderful colleague and a truly remarkable human being."

"Justice Durham has been an inspiration not only to lawyers and judges here in Utah, but nationally as well," Durrant said. "I cannot overstate just how profoundly her contributions have helped to build a court system that has come to be recognized as a national model."

Robert Rice, president of the Utah State Bar, praised Durham for her advocacy for diversity on the bench and her work with the Bar's Pro Bono Commission, which recruits and trains lawyers to provide free legal help to Utahns who cannot afford to pay.

"Justice Durham has not only been an esteemed jurist but has made immense contributions to access-to-justice issues in the state of Utah," Rice said.

Durham was born in Los Angeles and attended grade school in southern California; middle school in Washington, D.C.; high school in Paris, France, where her father worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury; college in Massachusetts, where she received her undergraduate degree with honors from Wellesley College; and law school at Duke University in North Carolina, where she is an emeritus member of the board of trustees.

In 1973, she and her husband, George H. Durham, now a retired pediatrician, came to Utah, where they raised five children.

During her time on the bench, the Utah courts made a dramatic shift from a fragmented judicial system to a unified one, Durham said. Before the mid-1980s, the counties supported the district courts, except for judicial salaries, and justice courts were independent.

"Our system in Utah is considered a model in the nation for court governance," Durham said.

Durham has been recognized nationally for her work in judicial education and efforts to improve the administration of justice. She was a founder of the Leadership Institute in Judicial Education and helped create and lead the Utah Coalition for Civic Character.

In addition, Durham is past president of the Conference of Chief Justices of the United States and also a past president of the National Association of Women Judges, which named her Honoree of the Year in 1997. In 2007, she received the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence.

The justice also was an adjunct professor for many years at the University of Utah College of Law.

"My service on the bench has been a privilege and a joy," Durham said. "It will be hard to leave all of the fine judges and wonderful staff with whom I have worked. I look forward to savoring the remaining months with my wonderful colleagues on the Supreme Court."

Twitter: @PamelaMansonSLC