Former Summit County judge on her first weeks on the Utah Supreme Court
Former Summit County 3rd District Court Judge Paige Petersen is considering herself extremely blessed this holiday season as she celebrates her first weeks as the newest justice on the Utah Supreme Court.
Last month, the Utah Senate confirmed Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision to appoint Petersen to the state’s highest court. She replaced retiring Justice Christine Durham.
“The day I was finally confirmed by the Senate, it was almost surreal,” she said in a phone interview from her Salt Lake City office. “It’s still all sinking in for me, but that was one of the best days of my life.”
Petersen, who is nearly three weeks into her position, said it has been daunting at times, adding “there is always a learning curve with a new job to understand the procedures” and navigating through a new system. Her first oral arguments were delivered last week.
“It’s all very interesting and I love it,” she said. “I just really enjoy the collaborative process and that I have the time to really think about issues.”
As a member of Utah’s Supreme Court, Petersen will be responsible for rendering decisions on legal issues that haven’t been clearly answered. She said her job is to provide a clear answer that the public and lawyers will be able to follow moving forward.
“Before, I was just one judge in a courtroom making the decisions on my own,” she said. “Now there are five of us and we have to collaborate. The people I am working with are so smart, and it’s so enjoyable to be able to talk through these issues with people that are so intelligent.”
Petersen served as a judge in the 3rd District Court, which serves Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties, for the previous two years, overseeing criminal cases in Summit County for most of her assignment. She was instrumental in the success of the Drug Court program, which offers offenders an opportunity to participate in an intense 18-month recover program in the hopes of having criminal charges dropped.
“That was one of my favorite parts when I was a district court judge,” she said. “I loved that feeling that you could directly be a part of helping a person change their life. It was wonderful for them when it works, and it feels great to be a part of it. When you see someone else succeed and you know you helped them in some way, I absolutely loved that.”
Roy Parker, a member of the Drug Court program’s peer support and director of the Summit County Recovery Foundation, said Petersen became deeply involved with the program and its participants.
Parker recalled when the Drug Court community was devastated more than a year ago after a Drug Court participant died.
“We all came to court on that Monday, disconsolate and teary,” he said. “Judge Petersen came out for court dressed in her robes. She immediately departed the bench and descended to the gallery, sitting among all of us while crying with us. I will never, ever forget her powerful compassionate response. We grieved together and began healing together.”
Petersen’s path to the bench included positions in Utah, New York and The Hague, Netherlands.
Before she became a district court judge, Petersen worked as a trial lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City as a federal prosecutor in the violent crimes section.
“I was in court a lot and I really enjoyed the job of being a federal prosecutor,” she said. “I’ll miss being a part of it and being in the courtroom at the trial level.”
Petersen worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the eastern district of New York in Brooklyn shortly after she graduated, where she handled cases involving organized crime and international narcotics trafficking.
After her stint in New York, she took an unlikely position prosecuting war crimes for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands. Petersen spent nearly two years working with six other lawyers trying a case that involved ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
“It makes me feel like you were doing something really important,” she said. “It’s important to shed light and bring justice for those victims. It was interesting to work with lawyers from other countries because they all had different practices.”
The Netherlands was an adjustment for Petersen, who grew up in Castle Dale and Price. She graduated from the University of Utah in 1995 and then from law school at Yale University before accepting a job on the East Coast. She moved back to Utah in 2011.
When considering what she would like to accomplish as a Supreme Court justice, Petersen said she hopes people will view her as someone who has done a “really good job” at being fair.
“I hope the decisions I write, and they are not just mine, are clear and people can understand them,” she said. “I hope people would see me as someone who is fair and is honestly trying to interpret the law and do the right thing.”
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