A dare opened doors: Judge Mary Noonan reflects on opportunities in her career

Mar 05, 2024 | Alumni

by Angela Turnbow

Judge Mary Noonan, an older white woman with short gray hair wearing a royal blue blouse and necklaceThis article was originally published in the winter 2024 issue of Res Gestae.

A dare initially started Judge Mary T. Noonan (’86) on the path toward a legal career.

Noonan studied sociology at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and recalls that her friends were preparing to take the LSAT. On the eve of their exam, they said, “Mary, we dare you to show up for the exam! And think about law school!”

Not wanting to back down, Noonan took that dare and the exam. However, she didn’t immediately apply to law school.

Serving families through social work

Soon after graduation, she found herself in Boston, Mass., working as a social worker for the Boston social services system on cases of abuse and neglect for families and children. Noonan remembers attending many court hearings for these families and thinking that it was the lawyers who got to talk.

“That irked me because they didn’t know anything about these families,” she recalls. “Wait a minute, I took the LSAT on a dare. I’m going to law school at some point so I can speak up!”

Noonan moved back to Utah and began her graduate education at the University of Utah in public administration. After that first semester, though, she decided it was time to apply to law school.

“I’m in graduate school anyway. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. I could throw myself into being a student and thought, ‘Well, why not just do them both together?’” Noonan recalls.

She was accepted to Utah Law and continued pursuing her MPA—working with both the College of Law and the department of political science to complete both degrees before the JD/MPA dual degree program was even available to students.

“The law school and the political science department both were very helpful and flexible. They were willing to work with this student [me] who wanted to get both degrees, and there wasn’t a formal program yet. So they made it through collaboration, and I graduated with both degrees in four years,” Noonan says.

Soon after Noonan graduated in 1986, the College of Law made dual-degree programs available to students—the JD/MPA and JD/MBA programs among the first—and now has six dual-degree program options available.

Forging a career to improve children’s lives

Both degrees have proved invaluable to Noonan on numerous occasions as she navigated the various positions in her career. Not long after graduation, she realized that working in private practice was not her path in life and took a position with the brand-new Utah Court of Appeals (formed in 1987), where she combined both her legal and administrative background.

From there, she served as the director of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services. Her time as a social worker in Boston helped prepare her for this role before she was recruited by the Utah attorney general’s office.

“My commitment to improving the lives of children started when I was a social worker in Boston but got legs here in Utah—first with family services and then being able to serve as a lawyer and an administrator in the child protection division at the attorney general’s office,” Noonan recalls.

Becoming a judge was another one of those fortunate opportunities in Noonan’s career—one her mentor, Judge Jeril B. Wilson (’71 and Fourth District juvenile court judge), encouraged her to apply for.

“He was really an excellent juvenile court judge,” Noonan says. “It was clearly a direction I was headed in terms of focus in my career, but I credit him with lighting the fire at that time to encourage the application. To this day, I’m very grateful he made that suggestion.”

Noonan served for 16 years as a juvenile court judge in the Fourth District. During this time, she was able to resurrect friendships with fellow classmates from law school, specifically Julie Lund (’86) and Dane Nolan (’86), as colleagues serving on the bench together. Both Lund and Nolan served on the juvenile court bench in the Third District.

“When you’re in law school (and in my case, public administration), you have an opportunity to immerse yourself, to meet people who have made the same choices as yourself, to develop friendships,” Noonan says. “It’s very interesting over the course of a career where circles come back around and are completed. That’s when I think about Dane Nolan and Julie Lund. It’s a nice memory, and it’s a nice pack to have been on.”

Without hesitation, Noonan remarks that the most rewarding aspect of being a judge has been to work with the families.

“It is a privilege to see those kids, to work with those families. Hopefully as they move through the system, they are better for it,” she says.

It is especially rewarding for Noonan to meet these kids, who are now young adults, at the store and catch up with them. They shout out, “Judge Noonan!” and come running and wanting to give her a big hug.

“Life doesn’t always turn out perfectly for these kids, but you can see the pride and hope in their faces. And that’s what makes it all worth it,” Noonan says.

Seeking service opportunities even after retirement

Noonan ended her career with the “the opportunity of a lifetime,” serving as the first female state court administrator for the Utah State Courts in 2019. She notes that once again she benefitted using both her administrative and legal education in this position as she tackled, along with many others, re-engineering the court system due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Noonan retired in 2021 and has since been enjoying time with family and friends, but she also accepted an invitation from the Utah Judicial Council to join the Committee on Fairness and Accountability, which addresses issues of unfairness, inequity, and bias within the Utah court system. She reflects on the many doors she’s walked through to help improve the legal and service systems for children and families in Utah.

“It’s never intentional,” she says. “You open yourself to opportunities. You pursue your education, your passions in life, and doors, if we’re fortunate, open,” she says. “If we’re even more fortunate, we walk right through them, even if it’s unknown and not entirely predictable what the outcome is going to be.”

Her education, Noonan says, also opened doors throughout her career.

“The University of Utah and the law school changed my life and gave me the tools to pursue what I feel like has been an exciting, challenging, rewarding and just damn fun career,” Noonan says. “Remember, a law school education provides opportunities, but more importantly, it carries responsibilities. Seek to serve your community. Use your education to make things better. Our world needs your voice, your civility, and your commitment to the rule of law. You can make a difference. And enjoy the ride!”

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