How a Cuban exile became a judge and fell in love with the Constitution
The Constitution is a covenant, says Denise Posse-Blanco Lindberg, who served as a judge for Utah’s Third District Court for 16 years
Judge Denise Posse-Blanco Lindberg knows that the law — like life — can be complicated.
She was born a U.S. citizen in Havana, since her mother was Puerto Rican. She was nine years old when she left Cuba with her family in 1960, after the revolution, fleeing to Puerto Rico with nothing but a suitcase full of photographs and a change of clothes.
Three years later, they sold their belongings to make a new start in New York. That path would lead her to five degrees in higher education from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, including a Juris Doctorate that introduced her to her life’s passion.
In 16 years as a judge at Utah’s 3rd District Court, she handled high-profile criminal cases and at least one unique example centered on religious liberty, before retiring in 2014. She is now a senior fellow at BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, where she advocates for religious freedom in Latin America and the Caribbean.
She reread all 4,440 words of the Constitution to prepare for this interview, and tearfully relayed what it means to her personally as a political refugee. She calls the document “a covenant among the people.”
Deseret News: How do your childhood experiences in Cuba influence the way you see the law?
Denise Posse-Blanco Lindberg: As someone who has lived in countries where the rule of law is a nice phrase that means little, it’s something I value deeply.
I watched the Watergate scandal as it happened, and a case went through the Supreme Court about whether (Richard) Nixon had to turn over the recordings made in the Oval Office. I remember fearing that Nixon would call out the Army, because that’s what I was used to. That’s what I’d seen. That’s what I’d grown up with: “Might makes right.” When he turned over the tapes on the order of the Supreme Court, that’s when I fell in love with this country.
DN: You also seem rather fond of education, with a bachelor’s degree in communication, master’s degrees in social work and educational psychology, a doctorate degree in health sciences and a law degree. What motivated you to keep going back to school?
DPL: For an immigrant, education is the surest path for advancement. And it has been highly prioritized in my family, almost excessively. Our motto is: Learning never ends. But I didn’t set out to get five degrees. My mom always said, “Make a plan for your life but don’t be wedded to it.” If opportunities present themselves, be flexible enough to take advantage of those. That’s what I did.
DN: Did your unique career path shape your decisions on the bench?
DPL: A lot of my training came into play working with defendants. I did social work for about 10 years, trying to help people with drug and alcohol addictions. I realized we were intervening too late, so I became interested in preventive work, which led me to pursue a Ph.D. studying how preventive care can prevent problems with addiction. Later, as a judge, I had an even bigger tool set and a team of people, and therefore a greater ability to impact somebody’s life.
DN: You clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at the Supreme Court. How did that experience impact you?
DPL: I felt the weight of representing Brigham Young University as the first woman from the school to clerk at the Supreme Court. All of my co-clerks came from schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and some of them were outright geniuses. I didn’t know if I could swim in that pool, and every day I thought I might get fired. In the end, it was wonderful to realize that I could hold my own and learn from people much brighter than myself.
DN: That’s a long way from flying over the Caribbean with nothing but your clothes. Was there ever a moment when the gravity of your journey hit home for you?
DPL: One day, I was walking up the Supreme Court steps and, all of the sudden, I realized it was the 31-year anniversary of the day I left Cuba. I started crying because I remembered my 9-year-old self getting on a plane wondering if I would ever be back — and my next thought was, “Now you are in America helping shape the law of the land.” I was emotional and confided in Justice O’Connor. It was one of the few times I saw her get misty-eyed. She got up and gave me a hug and said, “You’re what this country is about.”
DN: I’ve heard you use the word “covenant” to describe the Constitution. Why is that?
DPL: The Constitution is a covenant that we as a people make to govern ourselves. At its best, it represents a commitment to create a society that is fair and just. That closely parallels the society I believe God would want for us.
Reading the preamble never fails to move me, thinking of the founders’ faith, trust and commitment to submit of their own free will — not to a king, but to a new system of government they were creating. I am not blind to the myriad problems this country still has to overcome. I also know our Constitution is no guarantee we will do so or that its promise will be fulfilled. But I have faith in the system, however flawed it is.
DN: You’re now an advocate for religious liberty, which is one area where people still argue about what the Constitution means. But you also had to navigate those questions as a judge. Can you tell us more about that?
DPL: As a person of faith, it saddens me when people say that religious liberty is just an excuse to discriminate. I don’t believe true religion does that. It’s important that we talk about religious liberty in loving and civil ways and recognize how important it is to protect.
The irony is, I was the judge that for more than 10 years controlled the land trust of a polygamous community in southern Utah, after allegations of mismanagement. The United Effort Plan was made up of land consecrated by members of the Fundamental LDS Church, and redistributed by their bishop. After Warren Jeffs, their leader, became a federal fugitive, the state attorney general asked the court to take over the trust so that Jeffs would not steal from it.
I was very conscious that I was dealing with First Amendment issues, and I believe the courts must respect the autonomy of churches. I tried to look at the law and not the doctrine and cautiously draw the line between religious freedom and using belief as a blanket excuse for abuse.
DN: Have you ever returned to Cuba?
DPL: I finally got the chance to go back in 2017. After my husband and I arrived in Havana and dropped off our luggage, the first thing I wanted to do was walk to my grandmother’s house. I was amazed I was able to get us there, but it had been knocked down. Still, it was a sweet closing of a door.
The city is a beautiful ruin. You can see the skeletons of these beautiful old, Spanish homes that are just falling apart. It was different enough that it didn’t feel like home, and yet it was familiar.