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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
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.

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. 

"He is an extraordinary friend and mentor," Hansen said. "He has a unique ability of bridging gaps. Bridging gaps on the bench and between everyone else. It's an unusual talent."

But Hilder's tenure on the bench hasn't come without difficulty and disappointment. In 2008, Hilder was nominated to the Utah Court of Appeals by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. When the nomination went before the Senate for confirmation, Hilder was met with heated opposition by some state legislators.

"We didn't see it coming," said Alder, who was the Utah State Bar president at the time. "We all figured that he's one of the best judges in the state. We were all caught off-guard."

Either publicly or behind closed doors, Hilder would come under fire for a University of Utah gun rights ruling and his personal life, including a divorce and inactivity in the LDS Church. 

"It was something I worked toward for a very long time," he said of the nomination. "Just as I wanted to be a judge, I wanted to finish my career as an appellate judge. I believe no judicial position is an entitlement, but I felt I had earned the appointment. I was very qualified."

One senator, he said, suggested that confirming Hilder would mean having only one judge on the Utah Court of Appeals that was an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hilder had spent 11 years serving in LDS bishoprics and 25 years as an active church member, but he will tell you that for about the last 12 years, "I'm not active and I'm comfortable with that." He adds, however: "It's an amazing community and I still feel very connected to it."

Alder signed a letter in support of Hilder, along with a number of former Utah Bar presidents. Alder said other Utah Bar members called him to "very passionately" support Hider's nomination to the court of appeals.

"They felt strongly that he was one of finest judges they'd ever appeared before," Alder said. "Literally everybody in the bar that I talked to felt that way and I never had anybody who talked to me that felt differently."

Regardless, the nomination was struck down.

The failed nomination plagued him personally. Hilder said for a full year he would often wake up in the night and not be able to go back to sleep because of the "utter unfairness" of the situation. But he was careful not to let it impact his work.

"He's really taken the high road," Hansen said. "Everything has not gone his way and the Court of Appeals was an enormous disappointment. … But it was not one where he looked inward and sulked. It was one where he said, 'Let's see what we can do to accomplish good things with the position.'"  

Hansen said Hilder — a father of seven, five from his first marriage and two stepchildren — is a natural leader who made a statement when he decided to become a judge.

"I think he sent a good message to the legal community when he was able to give up a successful private practice with a high profile law firm and engage in public service on the bench," Hansen said. "He gave up a great deal to do that, financially as well as status-wise, but I think he had a commitment to legal and public service."

Hilder will tell you it's the people that make him love what he does. It's people who make it worth it. He knows the salary isn't great, but it has its own rewards.

"You often hear complaints about the pay and, frankly, it's not what it should be and eventually that gets to you," he said. "But there are many days I'd do it for free, it's so enjoyable. And there are moments as a judge that are so hard, they couldn't get you to do it for a million bucks."

Ultimately, it's the people who stay with him. Like Paul Wayment, a Summit County father who was charged with negligent homicide for leaving his young son, 2 ½-year-old Gage, in his truck while he scouted out a hunting area in the mountains above Coalville in October of 2000.

The boy somehow got out of Wayment's truck and wandered off into the woods. His body was found five days later by a volunteer who joined the search-and-rescue effort. An autopsy revealed Gage had died of hypothermia.

Hilder struggled with sentencing the father. Attorneys on both sides of the case did not recommend jail time, but he ultimately handed down 30 days. The next day, Paul Wayment took his own life.

In an uncommon move, Hilder issued a statement.

"It is a judge's worst nightmare that his or her actions may lead to unforeseen and tragic human consequences," he said at the time. "The death of Paul Wayment is such a tragedy."

In a Pulitzer Prize-winning article published in the L.A. Times, Hilder said he would never forget the man's face.

"I didn’t think his face would ever be out of my thoughts," Hilder recounted. "I didn't realize how true that was. I mean, I was sincere, but it's amazing how good it's been as a reminder. ... Paul Wayment was a good man who made a terrible decision."

Even at that time, a host of attorneys came out in support of Hilder, pointing to his compassion and fairness.

"He is one of the kindest, most compassionate, gentlest people to sit on the bench," attorney Ed Brass said at the time. "Any loss of human life is going to pain him greatly because of the kind of person he is."

Scott Williams, a former public defender who now is in private practice, made similar statements.

"Judge Hilder is a standout, in my opinion, for really going above and beyond even the requirements of his position to try to fully appreciate, understand and sympathize with the human condition," Williams said then. "He is extremely humane and conscientious in the way he applies his rulings."

Hilder said there is one other face he has long looked to for guidance. He keeps a photograph of his grandfather in his WWI uniform next to his computer behind the bench, as a reminder of integrity. The black and white photo helps the grandson the man helped raise more than anything else does.

"I don't need to read anything, I just look at him," Hilder said of his grandfather. "He always taught me about respect, that you bow down to no man, you always have to keep your dignity. He was as honest as they come."

Walking away from his seat at the bench, Hilder reiterates that he'll miss the courtroom. Now, he will primarily work as an arbitrator and mediator. His law partner will be his second and current wife, Jan, who was admitted to the bar in May.

Alder, who currently chairs the Utah Council on Conflict Resolution, said Hilder has already been scheduled for private mediations.

"We as mediators are excited to welcome him into the fold," Alder said. "He's such a great judge and people love him because he's neutral in his assessments. He's going to be a busy mediator."

Hilder's retirement goes into effect Sunday at midnight and he plans to be at his desk in his new office Monday at 8 a.m. With him will go his experiences — both on the bench and off — that rare quality Hansen spoke of, that ability to bridge gaps. The ability to see the humanity and possibility of redemption.

"I had a woman lawyer I admired a lot," Hilder said, starting another story. "She didn't know I'd been an LDS bishop …  and she was explaining something in a criminal case and it related to the church. I said: 'I don’t want to make a big point about this, but of course I understand this. I've been an LDS bishop.'"

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The woman expressed her surprise, but must have taken note, because she referred to the fact a few weeks later when she stood before Hilder with another defendant. The woman was trying to get probation for a client who was a stripper and bartender.

"(The lawyer) said: 'Judge, I know a judge isn't going to understand … people can do honest work in a bar," he recalled. "I said: 'Ms. So-and-so, I was a bartender and a bouncer. I understand you can work hard and honestly in a bar. She said: 'But you were a bishop!'"

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