I just clicked with the law. I just felt like I was coming home. I loved the intellectual challenge of the law. I loved the balancing of law and equity, you know, justice and mercy. I loved the fact that this is a country of laws, that the rule of law means something. Everything about the law, I loved. – 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg

SALT LAKE CITY — On a fine day in March of 1991, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg was walking up Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. when she realized that day, the one full of sunshine and azaleas, marked the anniversary of her departure from Cuba.

Thirty-one years before, she had left the country with her mother and brother with little prior notice. This March 19 was markedly different as she contemplated the work she was doing as a clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I flashed back to this rather frightened 9-year-old who boarded a plane not knowing exactly where she was going, not knowing if she would see her father again or when,” Lindberg recounted. “I thought: ‘And here you are. You’re walking up to the Supreme Court and you’re going to help write the law of the land.’

"I started crying — kind of like now, but much more.”

Lindberg recalled that moment and many others as she looked back over her 16 years on Salt Lake's 3rd District Court bench, now retiring from a career in law that she loves dearly and reflecting on the uncommon path that brought her here.

“It’s an immigrant’s story,” she said. “I came and I worked hard … and I tried to take advantage of the opportunities that were given to me.”

She was born in Havana in 1950. Her family was comfortable and close to their many relatives, filling her childhood with wonderful memories of extended family.

But while her mother initially worked with Fidel Castro and organized his introduction to the international press, she left the government after some months and was eventually asked to leave the country. A native of Puerto Rico, Lindberg’s mother and her two children carried American passports and made their way to Puerto Rico in 1960.

Until recently, Lindberg wasn't sure if she would ever return to Cuba, but the woman who once served as Raul Castro's flower girl and then came to embody the American Dream said she is now hopeful that the improvements in U.S.-Cuba relations could mean the fulfillment of another dream — visiting the country of her birth.

"I want my children and grandchildren to know the history and my family's history," she said, calling the in-roads being made between the two countries "wonderful." "I am ecstatic about it. … I think all we can do to connect people to each other, to know and understand each other, is beneficial. I think both Cuban and American people will be benefitted by normalizing relations."

In 1960, Lindberg’s father, a Cuban, was not allowed to leave with his family. The contrast between their comfortable, affluent life in Cuba and the one they made in Puerto Rico was significant.

“Those were three difficult years,” Lindberg said. “My mother was the sole breadwinner and I had a brother a year younger, so she worked and I had to take care of the house. I had to grow up fairly quickly — get myself off to school, get my brother off to school. My father, when they allowed him to leave … suffered a series of strokes and was never able to work again.”

Her father suffered one stroke while the family was at a cousin’s wedding in New York in 1963 and the family decided to stay in the United States, settling in New Rochelle after her mother sold what she could from their belongings in Puerto Rico. Lindberg said the responsibility of taking care of the housework fell to her.

"In retrospect, it was very disciplining and taught me a lot," she said.

She graduated from high school at 15.

During her senior year, she attended the New York World’s Fair and found the LDS Church. She and her family were converted, prompting Lindberg to attend BYU.

She received her bachelor’s degree at 19 and was married after graduation. She looked for a job in journalism, but took one in rehabilitation counseling.

Eventually, she earned a master’s degree in educational psychology with an emphasis in rehabilitation and was working on her PhD in health sciences when she decided to obtain a second master’s, in social work, for good measure, before completing her PhD.

“I love school,” Lindberg said. “There are very few things I do well, but school I do reasonably well.”

'Clicked with law'

Soon after, while working for the Utah State Office of Education, she worked on drafting reports for the Utah Legislature and collaborated with lawyers and colleagues who had also attended law school.

“I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but I really became intrigued with how lawyers cut to the heart of the problem,” she said. “I wanted to learn how to think like that.”

By this time Lindberg was a mother of two boys in her 30s. She took the LSAT, not realizing it was a test that usually requires some studying, and did reasonably well. She left it at that.

“I thought, ‘I’m just too old and I’ve got a nice career. I have by what most accounts should be a terminal degree. What are you thinking about?’” Lindberg recalled.

Two years later, at a church function, Lindberg was seated near a BYU law professor and mentioned that she had considered law school. A few days later, he was at her door with an application in hand.

She was accepted and offered a scholarship, leading to a family council. Lindberg said her husband and sons were supportive and when her boss offered to hold her job for a year while she tried out law school, she decided to seize the opportunity.

“That was the safety net,” Lindberg said. “I thought: ‘What do I have to lose? A year? A year’s worth of salary? It’s OK, we can do that.’ All these were just family discussions, obviously, so I took the plunge and went to law school.”

There, at 36, she found a work and passion about which she still speaks in reverent, fervent tones.

“I just clicked with the law,” she said. “I just felt like I was coming home. I loved the intellectual challenge of the law. I loved the balancing of law and equity, you know, justice and mercy. I loved the fact that this is a country of laws, that the rule of law means something. Everything about the law, I loved.”

One of her professors, former solicitor general Rex Lee, advised Lindberg to apply for judicial clerkships. Lindberg clerked first for Monroe McKay, of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, who then recommended her to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Following an interview, she was extended an offer, and once her husband graduated — he, too, decided to go to law school — the family moved to Maryland. Lindberg said she left home at 6 a.m. and took the last train home around midnight most days, except Sundays.

“It was work and it was rigorous work, but … it was a wonderful year,” she said, before she recalled a Saturday routine of discussing upcoming oral arguments with O'Connor and her fellow clerks. “I would sit on that couch and think, ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting here. This is amazing. I can’t believe I have this opportunity.’”

Lindberg said so much of it was made possible through the support of her husband, who helped manage the housework and child rearing amid his own time in law school.

“Through everything, he’s been there to be a 100 percent support in every way that I needed him to be,” she said.

From clerk to bench

After her time with the nation’s high court, Lindberg and her family stayed in D.C. and she worked in healthcare and appellate practice groups at a law firm there. They returned to Utah in 1995, where Lindberg worked as general counsel to a subsidiary company of healthcare network, Aetna, until the company was sold.

As she considered her next move, she went to O’Connor. The justice asked what was next.

“I said: ‘Well, I’d like to be you. … I would like to be a judge, but I don’t know what to do,’” Lindberg said.

O’Connor connected her with Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham, who told Lindberg there was a current opening on the trial bench and that it couldn't hurt to apply. The only catch was that the exhaustive application was due in just two days.

“I hurried up and got the application in and the next thing I know, the commission sends my name up. I then interviewed with the governor and the governor decides to appoint me,” Lindberg said, referring to then-Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt.

Grateful as she was for the opportunity, Lindberg said it wasn’t an effortless transition from appellate to trial court. Still, she was honored to have the opportunity and felt a duty to Leavitt to learn quickly and show him he hadn’t made a mistake.

“It was a very steep learning curve,” she said. “The first three years were extremely difficult. I was compulsive enough and proud enough that I didn't want to fall flat on my face, so I worked very hard to learn all that someone who had been a trial lawyer would have already known."

The hardest part was losing the luxury of time and contemplation that is afforded at the appellate level.

“In the trial court, your focus is, here are the litigants in front of me, here is the issue I have to resolve and I have to resolve it now and with limited resources for researching and limited time to do it in,” she said. “Over time, even though I thought and viewed myself as an appellate lawyer, I’ve grown to really love and appreciate what the trial court is and the function it performs and how hard it is and how hard my colleagues work. I have amazing colleagues and we’re all trying to make the best judgments that we can. In retrospect, I think this is where I belonged, even though I didn’t know that at the time.”

'Astounding job'

Third District Judge Royal Hansen said Lindberg will be missed for all that she brought to the court, from her background in social work to her contributions creating model jury questions and the mentoring she did for law students and new lawyers. He said she has also gone to Eastern Europe as part of a court delegation that trains judges there.

“She’s done an astounding job,” he said. “I think she has made extraordinary strides on the bench. Her training was largely appellate court … and she’s worked to perfect her skills as a trial court judge.”

Lindberg, he said, brought unique characteristics to the bench that were a benefit to the courts and the community.

“She really added to the credibility of our bench with the unique skills she brought and the life experiences she had,” Hansen said. “She is a very talented writer and is sort of legendary with the rulings and decisions and opinions she produced and I’m going to miss all that.”

His sentiments were echoed by Judge Michele Christiansen of the Utah Court of Appeals, who said that in reading rulings issued by Lindberg, she was always struck by the judge's intelligence and knowledge of the law.

"The high caliber of her intellect has always shown through in every decision she has made, so we will miss that — the 3rd District will miss that," Christiansen said. "She is a super smart individual. Her ability to analyze and understand the law and apply that law just really benefitted the parties and the lawyers that came before her."

Lindberg has handled the whole gamut of cases, including the complicated United Effort Plan Trust case, which involved the state taking control of a trust created by Fundamental LDS Church members after allegations of mismanagement by Warren Jeffs and other church leaders. Assigned to her since 2005, Lindberg will retain the case and oversee it as a senior judge even after her retirement takes effect.

“It will probably be the case that, for better or worse, will define my career,” she said. “That case is fascinating because you cover the waterfront from probate law to First Amendment law to contracts to unlawful detainer actions. It is a microcosm of legal issues.”

Lindberg is confident and commanding in court, but it is clear she cares about the people and issues before her and wants to reach the best solution. That intersection, she said, is a legacy of the judges who mentored her with the no-nonsense approach coming from O’Connor, the mercy from McKay.

She hopes that her legacy is one of emphasizing the importance of every individual.

“The law is majestic, but the greatest majesty really comes from how it touches the one and effects their life, hopefully for the better,” she said. “I think if we don’t care about that, then we’ve missed out.”

In the end, the cases that stay with her most are those in which someone’s life was left better from the influence of the court.

“When you see someone who had been addicted to meth clean up and straighten up and become a productive citizen and then have them send you a little note that says thank you … There is no better payoff,” she said.

Young Women board

She was reluctant to leave when retirement was first suggested by her husband and unsettled at the idea. Then earlier this year, she was extended a calling to the Young Women’s General Board of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“All of a sudden all the difficulties and feelings I’d had fled, and I felt that I was now leaving something I loved and going to something I love as much or more,” she said.

Lindberg plans to spend her time continuing her work on the board, overseeing cases as a senior judge and visiting her 11 grandchildren. Meantime, her daily absence from the courthouse will be felt, Christiansen said.

"We lost a very skilled, empowered woman," said Christiansen, who is also the judicial representative for the Board of Women Lawyers of Utah. "I think the world of Denise. I think she’s been a great judge and I’m really sad to see her go, because she’s made a lot of contributions. She’s had a long service … and she’s presided over a lot of noteworthy cases and she has a very keen mind for the law. It’s going to be a big loss."

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam