Judge Shelby addresses USU students: Personal beliefs play no role in judicial decisions

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby returned to his Alma mater to speak on the roles of judges in today’s society. As part of Utah State University’s Fireside Chat and Pizza series, the Institute of Government and Politics invited the judge, who ruled that Utah’s laws and constitutional amendment that prohibited same-sex marriages violated the U.S. Constitution, to speak. His ruling paved the way for over 1,300 Utah couples to marry, started the avalanche of federal court rulings in favor of marriage equality and is cited in 30 other court rulings.

USU director of government relations Neil Abercrombie invited the judge to speak to students about his experience of being a judge, in the hopes that they could determine if that was a career path they were interested in.

Students, of course, wanted to get inside Shelby’s head to understand the ruling itself, but were disappointed when Shelby said he could not talk about specific rulings.

Speaking for nearly an hour, Shelby said he finds it important for judges to be accessible to the public to the degree they can, though he has turned down numerous requests for interviews. He said one of the main things he wanted to discuss was people’s perception of the judiciary, especially political activism. He said that studies about whether a judge’s personal feelings on a topic swayed their rulings negate the idea that political activism exists among the judges. Whether a judge was appointed by a Republican or a Democratic president has little correlation of how the judge makes a decision, he said.

Of course, the topic of Kitchen v. Herbert was asked by one of the students.

“I want to know how you felt when [the Kitchen case] came to your docket. It’s such a huge political issue,” University of Utah political science major Ellen Koester asked. “That’s a really big responsibility to bear on your shoulders. It affects a lot of people’s lives, in good ways and bad.”

“Let me first say I shouldn’t talk about any of that and I won’t talk about any of that,” Shelby replied, joking that he was ducking the question.

“I will say this: What I attempt to do in every written decision — in that one as well — was I did the very best I could to articulate as clearly as I knew how what rules I applied, why I applied them, and how I applied them, so that anyone could come and read what I did and say whether it was right or wrong, he said. “The judiciary in my view should be transparent in that way.”

He did say that he is allowed to talk about he way he feels about the job and about decisions he’s made.

“I come back into my chambers after whatever kind of ruling,” he says, “And I think to myself this job is bigger than any single person could ever hope to be. Exercising judicial authority, whether it’s like the one you’re talking about with highly charged political questions … reminds me how important the work is.”

“The decision in the same-sex marriage case, I think, has prompted a dialogue in our society — and I think it’s a healthy dialogue — on what is the proper function of a judiciary,” Shelby said. “What role does a judge’s view of morals play in that decision? My answer is none.”

He was then asked if he has time with his caseload to pause and see what happens to his decisions, especially landmark decisions, he answered no.

“You do the best work you can, you work as hard as you can to understand the issues,” he said. “You do your very best to get the right result, then you give your ruling and you move to the next case.”

While he cares about the parties affected, he said that the next case deserves his full attention as well.

Shelby is a 1994 graduate of Utah State University, where he met his wife on the first day of school. The couple still travel to Logan for football games.

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