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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins, seen at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake, retires today.

SALT LAKE CITY — He's about as far as you can go in the state judicial system, and it's apparent that Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins — who retires today — still respects and loves the office.

It's clear that he reveres the law and is grateful for his tenure.

But he also never lost his sense of humor.

Whenever an attorney would say, "That's a good question, your honor," Wilkins could be expected to reply: "Of course it is, that's why I asked it."

"The law clerks would expect that," he recalls, chuckling. "I could see their mouths moving in the back."

A native of Murray, Wilkins considered medical school, dental school and law school and only settled on the latter because the University of Utah told him he could complete his first year of law school concurrent with the final year of his undergraduate studies. Looking back, he feels it was a "great choice."

"The ability to have some comfort in knowing that your investment, whether of time, energy or emotion, will be treated with respect and dignity by society is critical to being able to accomplish anything in life," Wilkins said. "And that consistency and predictability is what we call the rule of law and in this country in the past couple of hundred years, you've been able to count on that."

The decision to leave the Utah Supreme Court after 10 years — well before he was required to by law or age — was prompted by a desire for change.

"My personal view is that it's long enough," he said. "It's good for people to have different views and different experiences. There's a slight danger in thinking you deserve to be here. I'm not there yet, but it's time for me to go."

But Wilkins, who has served on the Utah Court of Appeals in addition to the Utah Supreme Court, calls the opportunity to be a judge an "incredible honor."

"It has its benefits," he said. "People treat you awfully well, but it's useful to kind of remember that you're a normal person like everybody else who's got to get their garbage can out on the street on Tuesday morning."

And while he is now staring down a legal career that has taken him as far as the state's high court, Wilkins is more than happy to talk about everyone else.

About his wife, Diane, who retired in 2008 from her post as a 2nd District Juvenile Court judge: "She was a really good judge." Of his secretary and staff: "public servants in the truest sense of the word."

Wilkins is justifiably proud of his accomplishments but is perhaps more happy helping others.

He refers to former law clerks as "extra children" and talks warmly of experiences working with judges in foreign countries.

"He will continually give of himself to make other people's dreams possible," said his daughter Stephanie Pugsley.

Though he could have attended Stanford, Wilkins chose to go to the U.'s S.J. Quinney College of Law to allow his wife to go to law school as well. They are a "partnership," Diane Wilkins said.

"Between us, we've done more then we could have done alone," Michael Wilkins said. "Having somebody who cares about your success as much as you do, and sometimes more, that's hard to come by."

The pair have since become the only couple in state history to serve on the bench at the same time while married. And while he'll admit he's had a successful career, and that he's loved it, he'll also tell you the proudest moments of his life had more to do with family than rank and title.

"I think I've actually taken a great deal more pride in her accomplishments than in mine," he said of his wife. "She is clearly the most significant, positive influence in my life."

He rattles off the names, occupations and accomplishments of his three children, Jennifer, Stephanie and Brad, and goes on to tell of the interests of his six grandchildren. In this family that now boasts four lawyers and two separate state judgeships, the law is not priority No. 1.

For one thing, it makes for less-than-entertaining dinner conversation.

"When Diane and I were in law school, the temptation to discuss law at the dinner table was high until we looked up and saw peas flying by and we decided, perhaps, dinner time was not good for that," he said.

Pugsley said having two lawyers and, later, judges as parents never fazed her, because there was always a parent at the dance recitals, the soccer games and the school programs. Diane Wilkins said she and her husband made being active in their children's lives non-negotiable. She said her husband never lost sight of that.

"His family means more to him than what his career has been," she said. "His career has been a wonderful one and he's provided wonderful public service for so many years in so many different ways but where it all matters is his family."

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilkins has served as a bishop and high councilman and hopes to continue to serve. Church service is just one of many things he plans to do with his time, in addition to working as a mediator.

"I've got about six books I want to write, biographies on people I know well, some legally oriented things, and then I'm giving serious thought to trying to write a book about young architects."

Of all the responsibilities a judge has, he said he will miss hearing oral arguments the most. He cited a few decisions that have stuck with him, including those regarding school vouchers and the right to bear arms. The vouchers case, he said, especially emphasized the importance of neutrality.

"We try really hard to keep our minds open," he said. "One of the reasons we don't discuss cases before we go into argument is because if you start talking about it up front you end up staking out positions and feeling like you need to defend it. By going on the bench fully prepared and relatively open-minded we go in with ideas about where we think it's going and that directs questions and drives discussion."

He also enjoyed meeting with the other justices, "the intellectual interaction" of discussing and debating these cases they chose with care, because they felt they were challenging and important and would answer questions for the state.

"Conferences with the other justices are generally quite pleasant," Wilkins said. "Some things we disagree on a lot and there are some things we don't disagree at all on but … they're good people. They're smart. If we disagree it's only because we disagree."

Chief Justice Christine Durham had her own kind words for Wilkins.

"Justice Wilkins has brought many strengths to the Utah Supreme Court in his long years of service, including his wit, his talent for innovation, his leadership in efforts to improve the legal profession and his thoughtful and well-crafted opinions," Durham said. "We all wish him great success in his next endeavors."

His wife would say his greatest strength is his sense of right and his willingness to stand by it. For his daughter, it is his humor and intelligence. They both describe him as a modest, humble man. But he knows the course of his life has been incredible.

"What people do (in the Supreme Court) has an impact on everybody in Utah and has an impact that may last for a very long time," he said. "So what we do here is kind of important and being a kid who was born in Murray and grew up in Utah's public schools and didn't do so well his first year at the U., but made up for it … to be part of this is kind of a remarkable experience."

That said, he is ready to move from this phase of his life. He is eager to travel, to help his wife in her endeavors in gardening — "I'm unskilled labor in those efforts" — and see what else he can accomplish in his profession.

"I won't miss being a judge," he said. "It's been nice. And, so far, it's the highlight of my career, but we'll see how the rest of it goes."

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