LOGAN – U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby spoke to USU students Tuesday afternoon and answered questions as part of USU’s Fireside Chat and Pizza, a meeting where students can eat pizza and hear from different political leaders. Shelby is a Cache Valley native and USU graduate well-known for his controversial decision of striking down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban. When he was a student at USU he was given the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. as part of a political internship, something that Shelby said influenced him.
“I think it just opened my eyes to the possibilities and also different ways of thinking,” he said.
After the internship he got involved in student government at USU, which he said gave him ideas of even more things he could do.
Shelby said one of the main things he wanted to discuss during the meeting was the perception of the judiciary that people have. He spoke about political activism – making rulings based on political or personal ideas instead of what the law says. He said that studies don’t back up the idea that political activism exists among the judges and that whether a judge was appointed by a Republican or a Democratic president actually has very little correlation to how the judge makes a decision.
“We rely on citizens believing in the integrity of our judiciary and believing that the judges that are executing that constitutional responsibility, an extraordinarily important responsibility, are doing so in accordance with the law and the rule of law and they are applying fairly and evenly as best the judges can,” he said.
Shelby said that decisions like his same-sex marriage ruling often cause people to question whether judicial activism played a part in the ruling. He said in all of his written decisions he tries to articulate as best he can what rules he applied, why he applied them and how he applied them so people can evaluate it for themselves.
“That’s what I meant to do in that case and that’s what I try to do in every case so that people can weigh in the judiciary,” he said. “I think my view should be transparent in that way.”
Utah State University student Christopher Nicholson attended the meeting and said he had never given much thought to how the judges work or what their career is like. He said he now feels he understands it more.
“I’m more comfortable about the legal system,” Nicholson said. “What (Shelby) said about how the judges are pretty good at being impartial, I didn’t know that.”
Shelby said he enjoys speaking at events like the one at USU and helping people understand the roles of federal judges.
“I think it is part of a judge’s obligation to make ourselves available so that people can ask us questions like this and get a sense of what we do and why we do it,” he said.