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Utah judge made a career of treating people with respect

Published September 21, 2013 7:57 pm

Courts • William Thorne, Utah's first American Indian judge, retires after 27-year career.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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.

Like family.

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."

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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.

Indian law encourages judges to focus on victims' needs before punishment and allows for negotiation and compromise.

"It's all about how you treat the people who come before you," Thorne said. "There really isn't a big social rift between people on one side of the bench and the other."

It was here that Thorne began to notice the disparities between how American Indian courts address issues of family welfare and child safety versus how state courts handle the same issues.

"I think his time in tribal court really allowed him to see problems from two sides," said a colleague, Associate Presiding Judge Frederic Voros. "He could see it from the point of view of a Stanford Law-educated judge or from the point of view of a man on the street."

Tribal courts handle less-serious crimes committed by American Indians on reservations, civil cases, family law and the relocation of children in accordance with the Indian Child Welfare Act.

"When you look at these people as your people, as your family, you have a personal stake in making sure you're fair," Thorne said. "You find ways to ensure people have the opportunity to get better, improve, succeed."

Thorne, who has two daughters of his own, understood the impact removing children could have on a family. He said that unlike "Anglo" courts, tribal courts try to emphasize familial contact and inter-family solutions.

"Removing kids from their families is more like an amputation," the judge said. "It ought to be the last, not the first, resort."

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Child welfare • Thorne's passion for helping children has followed him throughout his career.

In 1986, he was appointed to the 3rd Circuit Court in West Valley City as one of only two minority judges on the state bench.

Four years later, Thorne worked with the Permanency Project, an initiative aimed at decreasing the number of children in foster care without permanent placement. He moved on to work in the 3rd District Court in 1994 and was appointed to Utah's court of appeals in 2000.

To this day, he serves with several organizations that provide help for abused and neglected children in court, such as National Court Appointed Special Advocates, and works to improve research about adoption practices.

It is work he will continue even into his retirement, Thorne said.

'Real men say thank you' • In 2000, shortly after Thorne moved into his chambers in the Scott M. Matheson courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City, he received a visitor whose name he could not place.

When the man walked in, Thorne recognized him right away — he had sent him to jail more than half a dozen times before during his time at the West Valley City circuit court.

Immediately suspicious, Thorne asked the man how he could help him. That's when he saw a boy, small, no more than 8 years old, peeking out from behind the man's leg.

"He walked straight up to me, shook my hand and said thank you," Thorne recalled. "I asked him what for."

The man told the judge he wanted to thank him, personally, for believing in him.

He said whenever Thorne sent him to jail, he felt as though the judge had left the door cracked open — by offering opportunities for counseling, substance-abuse treatment and other services.

When he finally took advantage of those opportunities, the man said, his whole life changed.

He told Thorne he was clean and sober, he had a job and he was an active parent for the first time in his life — all thanks to him.

"He thought it was important to show his son that real men say thank you," Thorne said. "I didn't have the heart to tell him that I didn't see anything special in him. I didn't treat him any differently than anyone who comes into my courtroom. I treated him like I treat everyone — like family."

In his three decades on the bench, Thorne said, he has never seen anyone's life change because of the punishment they received or the price they've had to pay.

He's seen people change, he said, because they felt respected and worthwhile.

He's seen people change because he treated them in a way that would have made his grandmother proud.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae