Michelle Quist: Judge McKay lived by grace, and gave it abundantly

Judge Monroe Gunn McKay

We lost a giant among us.

Judge Monroe Gunn McKay peacefully passed away of natural causes in his daughter’s home on March 28. He was 91 and still actively working as a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

I was a clerk for Judge McKay during a formative time in my life — my return to law practice after an eight-year hiatus at home with kids. I named my son Gunn after him. People think I’m making a Second Amendment statement when they hear his name, but I’m really just honoring a man I loved deeply and admired even more.

He was a consummate storyteller from a life of adventure. He moved his young family to Malawi, Africa, to serve as a director in the Peace Corps and later traveled the world with his son as an avid birder. The same twinkle in his eye told stories about being dragged behind horse carts and almost running guns for Castro. I never knew which stories were true, and he liked it that way.

Judge McKay grew up in Huntsville, Utah, in a family of sheepherders. He would take clerks up every year to tour the town and home where he grew up, fondly remembering stories of his devoted parents and seven siblings. I remember the large barn and the cottonwood trees in the idyllic town that he loved so much.

Judge McKay used to say he was as liberal as he could be and still go to church. He was a nephew of David O. McKay, who was a prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the ecclesiastical battle between love and obedience (think President McKay vs. President Benson), Judge McKay always came out on the side of love.

He used to say there were only three sermons at church: Go to church, pay your tithing and they’re coming to get us.

This last sermon probably stemmed from his childhood memory of his father sitting at the kitchen table, after the bank seized his cattle as the result of bankruptcy, head in hands, saying, “They didn’t have to take the dog, too.”

Nothing in Judge McKay’s life was more important than his beloved wife Lucy and his nine children. When I knew the judge, Lucy was trapped in the clutches of Alzheimer’s disease. Judge McKay cared for her himself, with his daughter’s help in her home, for as long as he could. When she entered an assisted-living home, he visited her every day, often twice a day. It tore him apart that he couldn’t be with her more.

He loved her as her own person, and not just as his wife, if that makes sense. He spoke of the mission they served together in Durban, South Africa, as “Lucy’s mission.”

He often shared his view of marriage by telling a story about his father and mother coming out of a voting location when his father was running for office. Someone commented, “Well, at least you know you got two votes.” He looked at his wife and responded, “I’m only sure of one.”

Judge McKay was appointed to the bench in 1977 by President Carter after being a partner in an Arizona law firm and a law professor. He served as Chief Judge from 1991-1993. His chambers were joyful and challenging and full of life. He would often choose clerks that needed some kind of extra help – some grace. Like a mom starting again after eight years out of practice.

And there was always a mid-afternoon snack involving cheese – the smellier, the better.

Judge McKay often referred to a lawyer named Joseph Welch who stood up to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s accusations that Welch’s partner, a lawyer who had belonged to the National Lawyers Guild in law school, was a communist sympathizer: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?”

His message to lawyers was that there were always opportunities to do the right thing. He also recommended they check their own bull---- every now and then.

His most frequent saying after, “Let me tell you a story,” was, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And that’s the kind of judge he was. He recognized that the criminal justice system was mostly broken, that it was structurally discriminatory and unfair, and that at any point it could be him on the other side of the bench. His views on the drug war’s racist roots and the disastrous consequences of mandatory sentencing have been validated a hundredfold.

And so, he lived by grace, and he gave it abundantly.

At the happening of his 90th birthday, he sent an email to former clerks that perfectly captures his enigmatic spirit and easy humor:

“Ninety years and nine months ago a vigorous little pollywog out swam a host of his fellows and wriggled into an egg that eventually became me. Today I happily celebrate his victory. I have plans and commitments that will carry me through to the end of my ninetieth year. At that time I will sit down and set a new target date for how long I wish to continue celebrating his triumph. In the meantime I rejoice in your friendship and endurance.”

I wish he had lived forever.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.