New Utah justice is nominated as abortion ruling raises profile of state courts

Written by William C. Duncan

July 8, 2022

At the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court was wrapping up its term. In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox nominated a new member of the Utah Supreme Court, Judge Jill M. Pohlman.

Pohlman has served as a judge of the Utah Court of Appeals since 2016. The court of appeals is the mid-level state court that hears most appeals from trial court decisions and can resolve many issues, easing the workload of the state Supreme Court. At the announcement of the nomination, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court spoke highly of Pohlman, with whom the justices have worked. Pohlman described her approach to judging as “restraint” and following “the guidelines that have already been set forth.”

Currently, the public can comment on the nomination, and then the state Senate will vote on whether to confirm her. If Pohlman is confirmed, three of the five justices on the court will be female – a first in the court’s history.

The nomination came at a time when the importance of state courts, and state laws generally, have been highlighted.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision reversed half a century of federal court oversight of state abortion regulations. The decision did not directly change abortion laws; it allowed the states to do that.

As a result, abortion providers have challenged state laws that went into effect after the court’s decision. Since such challenges cannot be filed in federal courts, state courts will now be the forum for determining whether state legislatures really can regulate the practice of abortion.

In these cases, abortion providers allege that state constitutional guarantees of privacy, prohibitions on sex discrimination, or other provisions will invalidate laws that may prevent an abortion.

This will draw attention to state supreme courts, which will have the final say on the question of the constitutionality of abortion laws.

State courts have an important role to play in other matters as well. Since many of the disputes arising in day-to-day life are governed by state law, the courts responsible for interpreting and applying these laws are critically important.

During this year so far, the Utah Supreme Court has decided cases involving compensation for workplace injuries, termination of parental rights, tax liability, and public seizure of property.

Ideally, these issues are mainly determined by representative branches, and then the court applies existing guidelines, as described by Pohlman.

Under our constitutional system, it is the role of state institutions to determine all matters not specifically assigned to the federal government (such as determinations of citizenship) or precluded by constitutional guarantees (like the 14th Amendment, which applies many of the limitations specifically outlined in the Bill of Rights to the states).

The states’ paramount role in our government needs increased attention and appreciation in civics education. Perhaps an unintentional result of the abortion controversy may be an increase in that understanding.

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