Judge Jennifer Valencia takes the bench in Ogden, armed with optimism

Wednesday , September 06, 2017 - 6:30 AM

NADIA PFLAUM, Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN — Judge Jennifer Valencia has served on the bench in Ogden’s 2nd District Court for just one month, and although her legal career spans 20 years, putting on the robe takes some getting used to. 

“In my life’s goals, I hadn’t really set out to be a judge,” Valencia said. “I just knew I wanted to help in some way.” 

Valencia comes from a long line of helpers. Her mother is a teacher. There are firefighters and nurses in her family, and her husband is in law enforcement.

And then, of course, there’s her father, Judge Ernie Jones, who has served in Ogden’s court since his 2000 appointment. Valencia is pretty sure she and her dad are the first father and daughter to serve as judges at the same time in the state, let alone in the same courthouse. 

“Being my dad’s daughter is not a novelty to me,” Valencia said. “I’ve been watching him in court since I was 10 years old. A big part of wanting to be a prosecutor was seeing those court cases from the time I was really young.” 

Ernie Jones said he had no idea that taking his daughter to work with him would give her the law bug.

He proudly advised that his daughter is the first female judge appointed by the governor to Utah’s 2nd District Court. (Judge Pamela G. Heffernan was appointed to the Second Circuit Court in 1989 by Gov. Norman H. Bangerter and became a judge in Second District Court in July 1996, when the two courts merged. She is now a senior judge.)

“She’s a really good kid,” Ernie Jones said. “That’s coming from her dad, though.”

But seriously, Jones continued, “She’s very conscientious and determined, and I think she’ll handle every case with the same amount of attention and deliberation.” 

After graduating from law school at the University of Utah in 1997, Valencia became a prosecutor for the Utah Attorney General in the Office of Recovery Services, which handles felony non-support cases in district courts. After nearly a decade in the position, Valencia served from 2008 to 2013 as a prosecutor for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, which handles the heaviest caseload in the state.

Being a prosecutor made Valencia examine what attaining her childhood dream really meant, as far as helping to make a difference.

“I think the hard part is not to get to a point where the court is a machine, just churning through cases like they don’t matter,” she said. “I think that’s what my dissatisfaction was. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of time to delve too deeply in the cases.” 

Four years ago, Valencia got her chance to delve deeply into the law — “in the weeds,” she said — when she accepted a position as director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, which was just embarking on a criminal justice reform initiative ordered by Gov. Gary Herbert

Overseeing the push and pull of stakeholders from different state agencies, private groups and individuals gave her a better outlook on government in general. “Sometimes when they’re all in the same room together, they work things out,” she said.

Part of her job at the capitol involved talking to judges and people who wanted to be judges, and it got her thinking about what it takes to be a good judge.

“I don’t think my initial thought was, ‘Well, I could do that!’” she said. But she realized she had a unique opportunity to bring the experiences of her previous 20 years in the law home to Weber County

“I grew up here in Roy,” Valencia said. “I went to Roy High and then to Weber State, so I guess Northern Utah has always felt like it was my home. So when the position came open...” 

The process for applying and interviewing through the various judicial commissions and legislative committees was rigorous, she said. One unexpected question still gives her pause. 

“Somebody on the nominating commission asked me about how I felt about the concept of mercy and mercy being granted by a judge,” Valencia said. “I still find myself thinking about that question, because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of saying that someone should have to ask for mercy from the court. Because I fundamentally start from the position that all human beings are created equal.”  

Gov. Herbert appointed Valencia to fill the vacancy left by Judge Scott Hadley’s retirement in July. 

Valencia’s father is in the courtroom just one floor up, but her father-in-law is, in some ways, even closer. He passed away in April, suddenly, from pancreatic cancer.

Her husband’s father was a foster kid raised in Ogden. He started with nothing, and nobody gave him anything, Valencia said, but he went into the military and charted a noble path. 

“To see where his kids are and where my kids are, and just think — one person can really change the trajectory of future generations,” Valencia said. “I think it’s easy, as a prosecutor especially, to become cynical about people saying they want to change, and they never do. But I know it can be done. And if I can be a person that inspires people to do better, even if it’s one person, one person’s life is a big deal to me. I wouldn’t underestimate people because I know they can change, and they can build their life any direction that is positive if they want to.” 

If her father-in-law had any idea that there was going to be a Judge Valencia in Ogden, she said, “He would have been beaming from ear to ear.” 

Contact reporter Nadia Pflaum at npflaum@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @NadiaPflaum.

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