The College of Law and the entire Utah legal community mourns the loss of federal District Court Judge Dee Benson, who passed away in late November after a battle with brain cancer. We also honor his memory and his service to the legal profession, the judiciary, and to both of Utah’s law schools and their students.
Judge Benson graduated from the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU in 1976 as a member of its inaugural graduating class. When I bestowed on him the Honorary Alumnus of the Year Award at the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2015, however, I joked that he had a very distinct red streak as well. He was characteristically gracious about that characterization.
For many years, Judge Benson taught as an adjunct professor at both the U and the Y while serving as a federal judge. To anyone who knows the huge time demands judges face, this was phenomenally generous of him. He taught both criminal trial practice and evidence at SJQ, both of which are demanding courses for students and faculty alike.
Our students appreciated his efforts greatly and benefitted from both his immense legal knowledge and his tremendous spirit and sense of perspective. On learning of Judge Benson’s death, SJQ alumna Abby Dizon-Maughan, who practices at Burbidge Mitchell, noted: “A sad day for the profession. Judge Benson was funny, kind, and always generous with his time. I have many fond memories of him from law school, and after. He will be missed.”
Other faculty members remember Judge Benson fondly. Professor Paul Cassell served with Judge Benson on the federal bench and they remained close friends after Professor Cassell returned to the College of Law faculty. (Professor Cassell’s wife Trish also clerked for Judge Benson.) Professor Cassell said “It is hard to think of the federal district court in our state without thinking of him. And in addition to in-class teaching, he hired many of our students as law clerks and provided countless externship opportunities. He will be greatly missed.”
Professor Linda Smith, the founding director of our clinical program until last year, echoed that sentiment. “From my perspective he was one of the few judges I could call on to accept a student when it was important that the student be accepted by someone. Over 36 years, there were only three judges that I could call up and share the student’s particular circumstances and why we needed to find a placement for the student. Judge Benson stepped up to help in the educational endeavor when I asked him to do so. I was very grateful for his focus on the educational mission. It is sad that he left us too soon.”
Judge Benson was a consummate lawyer. After graduating from law school, Judge Benson spent approximately eight years practicing with the Salt Lake City law firm of Snow, Christensen & Martineau. From 1984 through 1989, Benson served in various government posts in Washington, D.C., including a stint as Senator Orrin Hatch’s Chief of Staff and as Associate Attorney General. In 1989, he returned to Utah as the United States Attorney for the District of Utah. He held this post until 1991, when President George H.W. Bush appointed him as a United States District Judge, where he remained until his death. From 2001 to 2008, he served as Chief Judge. Judge Benson continued to go in to work despite his worsening cancer, until just days before his passing.
But Judge Benson was much more than a fine attorney and superb judge. He was a kind, gracious, and funny person who relished all of his pursuits. As Professor Cassell noted: “The closing words of obituary very much convey the love of life Judge Benson always displayed: ‘In lieu of flowers, turn on a Willie Nelson song and go for a bike ride.’”
GIVING IN MEMORY OF JUDGE BENSON
The Dee Benson Memorial Scholarship is being established at the S.J. Quinney College of Law to recognize the tremendous influence Judge Benson had on our law students as an adjunct professor of evidence and mentor, and to carry on his legacy of deep respect for the law. Donations can be made online at www.law.utah.edu/give (select the General College of Law scholarship fund option and add Judge Benson’s name in the memorial gift field).
Donations can also be mailed to the College of Law at the following address:
Dee Benson Memorial Scholarship
S.J. Quinney College of Law
Attn: Kevin Carrillo
383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112