U.S. District Judge Dee Benson dies at age 72
The former PE major was appointed by presidents, chief justices and senators to a wide range of prestigious positions at the highest levels of the legal profession
SANDY — Dee Benson, the longtime district federal judge who cut a wide swath through the legal world in Utah, died at his home in Sandy Monday. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer in April.
Benson, 72, showed up in his office as recently as last Wednesday, driven there by his identical twin brother, Lee, the venerable Deseret News columnist.
By any measure, Benson had a brilliant, far-reaching legal career. He was appointed as a federal judge in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush and served until 2014, when he took senior status. Before that he was the U.S. attorney for Utah, chief of staff for Sen. Orrin Hatch, and associate deputy attorney general in the Attorney General’s Office in Washington, D.C., the No. 3 position in main justice.
While serving as a district federal judge, he was appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist to the FISA court, and Chief Justice John Roberts appointed him to serve on the Judicial Conference of the United States.
Not bad for a PE major from BYU.
“He had an amazing legal career, just remarkable,” says longtime friend Paul Warner, the chief magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court in Utah whose office was next to Benson’s.
The hallmark of Benson’s judicial career was impartiality, say his peers. There is a public and media perception that judges are influenced by their personal feelings and political leanings; Benson never was that judge.
“These days you hear about so-called Democratic or Republican judges,” says Warner. “The media is quick to report a judge was appointed by Obama or Trump, indicating that’s what swayed their rulings. Dee loved the law, and he was enormously talented — clearly the quickest legal study I’ve seen in the 45 years I’ve been in law. And because he loved the law and knew it, he let the law dictate the outcome.
“He never had an agenda, other than to get it right, and he did his best to get it right — not according to personal beliefs or feelings, but according to the law as he understood it.”
Says his brother, “He marveled at people who thought judges were activists or had an agenda.”
Besides a keen legal mind, Benson possessed a deep streak of wit, humor and kindness, which engendered friendship and affection everywhere he went. Informed on Friday by phone that Benson’s end was near, Sen. Mike Lee, who clerked for Benson, struggled with his emotions and his words.
After talking about Benson for a few minutes, Lee paused and then said, “This is hard for me. He’s one of those people you don’t expect to be mortal. I’m thrown off by this.”
The phone conversation was winding to a close when Lee paused again and said, “I will regret it if I don’t say what’s in my heart. Do you mind if I take a couple of minutes to do that?”
Continuing, he said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a more genuine person. A person without guile in the position of prominence that he had is a true treasure to his fellow beings. All he wanted was to do the right thing. And he was genuinely concerned about the happiness of everyone around him, including those who worked for him.
“He knew everyone in the courthouse. He was sort of like the most popular kid in the school. Everybody’s favorite guy. It wasn’t just because he was an unusually talented judge. He was just a good person. He made everyone around him happy. I never had a conversation with him when I wasn’t happier and more encouraged than I was before. And he was fun. There’s not another person like him anywhere.”
Benson was the accidental judge in many ways. He never meant to have a legal career.
He grew up on a small farm across the street from the old Jordan High School (now razed and replaced by Jordan Commons). He enrolled at BYU, then took two years off to serve a mission in Sweden for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After graduating from BYU in 1973 with a degree in physical education, he was a student teacher and soccer coach at Hillcrest High. He changed his career plans after that experience and applied for law school.
“He only went to law school because he didn’t want to be a schoolteacher,” says Lee Benson. “His vague plan was to be a soccer coach at a high school. It took one quarter of student teaching to have him fleeing back to school. He said, ‘Maybe I’ll try law school.’ That’s how much planning went into that.”
He originally applied to the law school at the University of Colorado, but when the paperwork arrived in the mail he realized the school had assigned him to the women’s dorm (probably because of the gender-neutral name). He called the school and said, “By the way, I’m not a woman.” The university rescinded his slot in the school.
Benson then turned to BYU, which was just opening the J. Reuben Clark Law School. According to Warner, Rex Lee, the school’s founding dean, was determined to hand pick the best and brightest for the charter class and personally recruited many of the students, including some who were headed to prestigious law schools.
“When it got near the end, they tossed in a few oddballs and I was one of them and so was Dee,” says Warner. “We weren’t recruited. Dee was a PE major and I was an English major — what were we going to do? Dee immediately became a star.”
As Warner tells it, Benson worked hard the first semester and “knocked it out of the park.” After that, Warner says, Benson took a more relaxed approach to school. His ability to study and grasp legal concepts quickly left him more free time for other activities and sports. During his final year of law school he played for the school’s club soccer team. He still finished near the top of his class.
“He wasn’t married to the library like other students,” says Warner. “He could’ve finished No. 1 in the class if he had had the inclination. I learned more law from Dee Benson than from any professor. We’d study together and he’d read ahead and then teach me. He was phenomenal. He was a natural-born law student. He stumbled into law, but he was brilliant. He was a star in our class. Equally important, people loved him. There was this affability about him and there always was. He never had the arrogance that so many judges and other brilliant people had.”
Warner and Lee both went on at length about Benson’s native intelligence. So did his twin brother, who laughed when he said, “Even though we were twins it always bugged me that he was smarter than I was. And that’s not false modesty. He was freakin’ smarter than I was.”
Benson’s sharp mind and quick wit were never more on display than during his investiture as a federal judge. The courtroom was packed with politicians, judges and government officials. One by one about a dozen of them roasted Benson. When it came time for Benson to respond, he not only recalled what each of them had said, he calmly answered each of them with repartee, bringing down the house with laughter.
Benson graduated from law school in 1976 and that summer played professional soccer with the Utah Golden Spikers of the American Soccer League. Years later, with typical self-deprecation, he would say that experience made him realize he didn’t have a future in professional soccer.
Then he got serious about his law career. He accepted a job with the law firm of Martineau and Mack, which included a car and a nice office. When he realized he had to work six to seven days a week, he returned the car and took a job with Snow, Christensen and Martineau, which proved to be a better fit for him.
Little did Benson know the places his career would take him — that presidents, chief justices and senators would assign him to a wide range of prestigious positions at the highest levels of the legal profession.
“He would fly to Washington and meet with the chief justice and never say anything about it,” says Lee Benson.
He served as counsel on the Iran-Contra Congressional Investigating Committee. As one of the seven judges on the FISA court for seven years, he flew to Washington frequently to review requests for warrants and wiretaps against people who might be attempting to harm the U.S.
“It was all classified and he couldn’t talk about it,” says Warner. “It was quite an honor to be asked by the Chief Justice (Rehnquist) to sit on that court. He (Benson) was the gatekeeper.”
Later Benson was appointed by Chief Justice Roberts to be one of the senior district judges sitting on the Judicial Conference of the U.S., the governing body of the federal courts.
Even after he was struck with cancer, he embraced his legal work. After a biopsy was performed on May 1 to determine the nature of the growth in Benson’s brain, he was bedridden for about a month and was partially paralyzed. By the end of the month, Benson was returning to his office in downtown Salt Lake City.
“It was his life,” says Lee Benson. “The court and the law clerks were as much family to him as, well, family.”
As he considered the loss of his twin, Lee Benson, who has authored two dozen books in addition to writing an award-winning newspaper column, notes, “He was my best friend and my confidant and my best critic — in the most positive sense of that word — because he would tell me when something I wrote was crap.
“In journalism school they tell you to have one person in mind when you write stories. That person was Dee. I never wrote anything that wasn’t to him.“