To Judge William Thorne, every defendant who has ever come through his courtroom might as well have been one of his cousins, uncles or aunts.
It’s how he sees them, he said on the eve of his retirement last week from the Utah Court of Appeals.
For most judges, this approach would be unheard of — even unsettling.
There is a widespread belief that defendants are, and should remain, blank slates. Strangers about whom they know and assume nothing. It ensures fairness, and prevents bias.
But for Thorne, the opposite is true.
"Your first responsibility is not to sit in judgment of people; it’s to treat them with respect," said Thorne, the first American Indian state judge in Utah. "If everyone who comes into your courtroom is your cousin or your uncle or your aunt, you need to ask yourself, could you go home at night and tell your grandmother how you treated them? Not whether you gave them what they wanted, but whether you gave them the respect they deserved."
Family, and its importance in people’s lives, and society as a whole, has become a central and driving force throughout his 27 years as a state court judge.
From guiding his actions as a judge to pushing him to advocate for children’s rights and family law, Thorne sees the path to healing society as beginning with family and treating others with respect.
"He truly is a man of the people," said appellate Judge Gregory Orme, who has worked with Thorne for 13 years. "He didn’t really see cases as legal puzzles, he saw them as conflicts between real people, and an opportunity to help real people."
Family » Thorne, 60, learned from a young age what it felt like to be disrespected and judged by strangers who knew nothing about him.
The eldest of five children born into the Pomo Indian tribe on the Northern California coast, Thorne recalls emptying his pockets before daring to go into any neighborhood store or market, so as not to be accused of stealing something.
"I grew up in a different place; I grew up as an outsider," Thorne said. "I know what it’s like to work twice as hard to get half as far."
But society’s expectations were never allowed to dictate his own.
Thorne’s parents, who both worked full time to provide for him and his siblings, demanded that their children get an education. Eventually, they all went to college.
But the most influential person of Thorne’s childhood, he recalls, was his grandmother.
"She had this way about her that made me feel like I was the most special boy in the world," he said. "But as I got older, I realized she made everyone feel that way. Back then, I was jealous [of those others]. But today, I see it for what that is — a rare gift."
Tribal court » This understanding of family made Thorne the perfect fit to preside over tribal courts throughout the West — a job Thorne took on shortly after graduating from Stanford Law School in 1977, and continues to this day.
Unlike state court, which is bound by a rigid system of laws and limited sentencing parameters designed by legislators, tribal court is more community oriented.Next Page >
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