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Loved and controversial: Judge Robert Hilder looks back on career of ups and downs

Published: Saturday, July 30 2011 5:06 p.m. MDT

Judge Robert K. Hilder talks about his life and his career as a judge Friday, July 22, 2011, in his office at the Matheson Court house in Salt Lake City.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Judge Robert K. Hilder loves redemption stories. It was "A Tale of Two Cities" that inspired him to become a lawyer in the first place.

"He was a dissolute lawyer but finally he arose and did the right thing and for whatever weird reasons, that inspired me," he said, explaining protagonist Sydney Carton.

Hilder cites the Frank Capra classic "It's a Wonderful Life" as one of his favorite films.

And this isn't significant because the man needs redeeming, by all accounts he has had a long and successful career, but because in his time on the bench, he's seen stories of redemption. And of pain and of loss and of striving.

It showed him what he loves most about the profession he's dedicated his life to.

"To me, law … touches on the whole human experience," he said. "You have history, you have politics. If you enjoy those human areas, the law, I think, is a tremendous avenue to, one, understand human interactions and, two, the whole issue of stories."

He explains that more than anything, he is interested in people and in finding ways to help and to solve the problems laid out before him.

That's what drew him to the law. That's what made him decide, as a law student, that the ultimate goal would be to become a judge.

"It was the thought that you could dedicate your life to the work and to finding solutions and trying to get right answers," he said, before adding: "And right answers are, by no means, always available. It's a very ambiguous world, the world of the law, but it feels good to put your effort into looking into the solution."

Even though he knew from the age of 12 that it was law he would dedicate his life to, it was by no means a straight shot getting there. Hilder left school in the 10th grade, not long after he got big enough to put himself between the blows his alcoholic father handed to his mother.

"He turned on me and told me I was a free loader and to get out of the house," Hilder said. "And I just blew up one day and did it."

He said the truncated education was pretty typical for Australia at the time. He would spend the next 12 years or so doing odd jobs. He took a job as a bank clerk — "That was miserable" — before taking everything he had saved up to try and make it as a professional horse gambler. The venture lasted about five weeks.

He would spend time as a bouncer, a bartender, a jackeroo, a truck driver and on and on before he would join the LDS Church, serve a mission to Australia Adelaide, subsequently marry a fellow missionary and move to the United States at the age of 28.

It was here that he earned his GED and a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Utah — a feat that he accomplished in just under 2 ½ years. He went immediately into law school and from there into litigation.

"After that summer (at a local litigation firm), I never wanted to do anything but litigate and that's what I love," Hilder said.

Still, 16 years to the day that he will retire, Gov. Michael O. Leavitt appointed Hilder to the bench. In his time there, he has built a reputation as a "judge's judge," according to attorney Nate Alder.

"He's a very popular judge," Alder said. "He's appreciated. He's what judges look to to become a judge. He's hard working and he's perceived to be extremely fair."

This was echoed by 3rd District Judge Royal Hansen, who has served with Hilder for eight years on the bench but knew him when both were practicing attorneys. Hansen will take over as the chief presiding judge when Hilder retires. 

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