Longtime federal Judge Dee Benson, known for his kindness, legal acumen and deep political connections, died at his home Monday.
He was 72.
Benson had been diagnosed with brain cancer in April, according to his twin brother, Lee.
Lee Benson said his brother had lost some mobility after a biopsy in April, but continued to work in his office every day, as recently as last Wednesday. He had taken the weekend off for the Thanksgiving holiday, Lee Benson said, and the “tumor kind of took over.”
Lee Benson, who works as a columnist at the Deseret News, said his brother was someone who didn’t fit the mold of what a federal judge looked like when he was appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. He kept his bicycle in his chambers and had a dart board for his clerks.
“It always bugged me that he seemed like he was smarter than me,” Lee Benson said. “We did go in different ways, journalism and the law. But neither one of us did it with any long-range planning. We both sort of fell into these professions.”
Dee Benson’s interest in the law began only after he found out what he didn’t want to do: Be a teacher.
He had been a physical education major at Brigham Young University, and his brother said Benson had wanted to coach high school soccer. But after getting into the classroom as a student teacher, he found out he didn’t actually like it.
“It really just ran him back to grad school,” the brother said.
Dee Benson graduated from BYU’s law school in 1976, and that summer, played soccer professionally with the Utah Golden Spikers of the American Soccer League. Lee Benson said his brother was always proud that he had made the team.
But he later recalled that playing for the Spikers made him realize he wasn’t cut out to be a professional athlete.
“He was hired at this law firm, and the first thing he told them was, ‘I’m going to play soccer this summer too,’” Lee Benson said. “That was interesting. It was short-lived.”
Benson worked in private practice early in his law career, then worked in Washington, D.C., as counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was former Sen. Orrin Hatch’s chief of staff for two years starting in 1986.
Hatch on Monday called Benson a “cherished friend,” saying the man brought “experience, wit and wisdom” to the federal bench.
“Dee’s heart was as big as his intellect,” Hatch said in a statement, “and it’s for his trademark kindness and humility that I will remember him most. He had a tremendous legal career, but most importantly, he had a rich and meaningful family life and was always there for his loved ones.”
Benson worked as U.S. attorney for Utah in 1989, and had that job for two years before he was appointed to the federal bench. His brother said this was Benson’s favorite job, because he could work as a trial lawyer and manage a team of prosecutors.
John Huber, the current U.S. attorney, said that Benson left his mark on the federal bench and bar. Benson’s photo, Huber said, hangs just outside his office.
“Many attorneys and support professionals in our office have personal connections with him,” he said. “As a judge, practitioners knew they would get a fair shake and thoughtful consideration from Judge Benson. In an age of growing incivility, Judge Benson served as a shining example of professionalism, kindness and courtesy.”
Benson served as a full-time judge until 2014, when he took senior status. He served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 2004 to 2011 and was a member of the Judicial Conference from 2012 to 2016.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee was one of Benson’s law clerks, and he wrote Monday that the judge was a mentor and role model. They had deep conversations about the law, Lee said, which oftentimes took place while mountain biking or hiking or during a game of darts.
“Everyone at the courthouse — from prosecutors to defense counsel, from civil litigants to criminal defendants, from probation officers to support staff — loved and learned daily from Judge Benson,” he said. “Walking through the courthouse with him was like hanging out with Ferris Bueller; he was cool in every crowd.”
Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday that he was saddened by Benson’s passing.
“Judge Benson served the citizens of the United States respectfully and was an example of dedication and sacrifice,” he said in a statement. “He was selfless and extremely knowledgeable. He was a great public servant and will be sorely missed by all who had the good fortune to serve with him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Dee’s family and friends as they mourn his passing.”
Benson’s time on the bench was marked by several high-profile and controversial cases. One of Benson’s most criticized decisions came when he sentenced environmental activist Tim DeChristopher to two years in prison after DeChristopher disrupted a December 2008 auction at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Salt Lake City office. The sentencing decision set off anger in the courtroom, and a concentrated protest that ended in two dozen arrests.
He was also the judge who ruled against the religious group Summum in a 2003 lawsuit, where the group sued Pleasant Grove city for the right to install a monolith of its beliefs next to an existing monument of the Ten Commandments. The decision was overturned on appeal, but the Utah Supreme Court eventually took up the case and ruled in favor of Pleasant Grove.
Lee Benson said outside of the courtroom, his brother was passionate about his family. He has four children, two of whom also studied law.
Dee Benson will be remembered, his brother said, as someone who looked at life differently, who tried to simplify complicated problems. A man who followed his own drummer, and was the unconventional “square peg” in the legal profession.
“He was not your cookie-cutter lawyer, judge or attorney,” Lee Benson said. “But I’m so darned biased. He was my best friend and confidant and everything else.”