After serving for 26 years, Seventh District Judge Lyle R. Anderson will be retiring from his post in July.
His appointment to the position in 1992 was somewhat unexpected.
After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School in 1982, he returned to his hometown of Monticello and worked for his father’s law practice. In 1991, he was elected to be the Grand County Attorney, and in 1992, he was approached about running for a seat in the Utah House of Representatives.
“My decision to run for the legislature in ’92 was not something I expected,” the judge said. “I wasn’t planning on doing that. I thought I was quite young. I thought I was quite young to be a judge, too.”
Soon after he was elected to the House of Representatives, a vacancy opened in the Seventh District Court. Candidates for district judgeships must apply to a nominating commission, which sends the names of three to five nominees to the governor, who typically chooses an appointee from that selection.
“It was a difficult decision… to apply for the judge position after I’d been elected to the legislature,” Anderson recalled. “But the opportunity to be a judge comes along only a few times in a career, possibly just once. Especially if you live in a rural area.”
Anderson was appointed, and resigned from the legislature after serving for two-and-a-half days.
“It was kind of funny,” he said, “I moved from executive branch to legislative branch to judicial branch, all in the space of a month.”
Anderson was thoughtful and dedicated in the courtroom, according to one of his longtime coworkers.
Sue Batchelder, who worked as a court clerk for the judge for many years, remembers him as an exceptional man.
“I didn’t ever work for a judge that I respected more,” she said of Anderson. “He always did everything to the best of his ability. He was extremely bright – very articulate and knew the law … and I always felt like he applied it fairly.”
Craig C. Halls worked as a prosecutor in San Juan County for 20 years, and is now a divorce attorney in Blanding.
He said that the judge was conscientious about trying to move his court calendar along.
“He was concerned about not letting things sit for long periods of time,” Halls said. “I think our district benefited from the fact that he didn’t have a long lag time on his calendar. That is different from some of the other jurisdictions that I have been in front of.”
Halls said he also found Judge Anderson’s “no-nonsense, get-to-the-bottom-of-the-issue” approach to be refreshing.
“A new judge could learn and could benefit from Judge Anderson’s judicial demeanor and work ethic,” he said.
Anderson has adjudicated a variety of cases, including murder cases, land-use disputes and civil suits. The bulk of his caseload, however, has consisted of criminal and divorce cases.
“It’s hard,” he admitted. “Sometimes it seems like we’re just pushing a ball up a hill and it rolls back down.”
Notable progress was made, however, in one area of criminal justice, in the development of drug courts in Utah. According to the Utah courts website, “drug courts, through frequent testing and court supervision, focus upon eliminating drug addiction as a long-term solution to crime” – an alternative strategy to solely punitive measures.
“I really have to give most of the credit to Judge (Mary) Manley, of the juvenile court, for getting a drug court started,” Anderson said. “But I supported it. It’s a change that we made to the approach we take to try to get people to stop using drugs – a little more cooperative of an approach. I’m happy that we did that.”
In divorce and child custody cases, Judge Anderson initiated a practice of consulting the children involved when deciding the best resolution for the family.
“I felt like if they were old enough I could visit with them and find out more about what really was best for the children by talking to them, than by having their parents tell me what was best for them,” he said.
Batchelder recalled that Anderson was generally very insightful and able to reach the truth in the cases he judged.
“He has a very sharp analytical mind,” she said. “You have to see through a lot when you’re a judge. He did get right to the heart of the problem – he knew the law so well. He was a very logical thinker.”
Halls said he did not always agree with the judge’s decisions.
“But in retrospect … I could see why he made the decision,” Halls said. “So while I did not always agree, I respect the decisions that he rendered.”
One local issue on which Anderson took a stand was the participation of Native Americans on juries in the Seventh District.
Early in his appointment, a discrimination suit was filed against the court, claiming bias against Navajo and Ute jurors.
Anderson said that while he can’t comment on what happened before he took office, during his career, close to half of San Juan County jurors were Native American, which matches the demographics of the county. He attributes any change in practices to a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that lawyers could not exclude jurors based on race. However, he made a point of emphasizing that standard.
“When I took office,” Anderson said, “I made it clear to the lawyers that practiced before me that if I noticed that they were showing a pattern of excluding people because they were Navajo or Ute, or not Navajo or not Ute, I would possibly be undoing their decision to excuse a juror. I think that may have changed things some. That probably had a little effect.”
While very serious in the courtroom, Anderson does have a sense of humor and fun.
He is known for his beautiful singing voice, and for his Elvis Presley impersonations. He was also kind to his friends. Batchelder warmly remembers the time Anderson brought his teenage sons to her home and they re-shingled her roof as a favor.
Anderson touched on what he thinks will continue to be substantial issues in the Seventh District.
“What I’ve noticed during my career is that drugs, particularly methamphetamine, continue to be a challenge and will probably become a bigger challenge,” he said. “The other thing is sexual abuse of children. The laws have changed, and maybe societal attitudes have shifted a little bit, and these things get reported a little more.”
Anderson attributes some of the rise in reported incidents to changes in statute of limitation laws and increased education in schools and churches. “I think that the shift is not complete,” he added, “so I think it’s (reporting of sexual abuse) probably going to increase before it stabilizes.”
Anderson predicts that rising tourism and increasing population will be another recurring issue in the Seventh District.
Public land issues, which have received a lot of press recently, usually revolve around federally owned lands and thus are usually tackled in federal court. However, issues involving city zoning and affordable housing could keep the state courts busy.
“When a community like Moab is trying to figure out how to deal with the heavy increase in visitors, what do you do about finding housing for all of the workers that are needed for this service industry?” Anderson said. “And what do you do with RV parks? Most of us want all of the land around our house to be really pretty, and if there’s something that isn’t going to be as pretty, we want it built somewhere else. I think there’ll continue to be those kinds of issues.”
Though he’s retiring from the district court, Anderson plans to apply for senior judge status, which would put him on call to fill any temporary vacancy on the bench. As a senior judge, he would also have opportunities to be a mediator, helping parties attempt to resolve disputes outside of court.
He has also considered returning to his law practice, or doing active service work for his church. He and his wife have discussed going to Africa to do humanitarian work, or possibly to Italy, where Anderson served a mission in his youth and where he learned to speak Italian.
“There’s also some opportunities to go to countries who are just trying to get a judicial system established, and volunteer judges from the United States can go and spend a few weeks with judges in these countries and give them training about maintaining judicial independence,” he said, describing another possible avenue of service work.
Anderson and his wife have eight children and 19 grandchildren, and they hope to have more time to be involved in their lives.
Perhaps an understatement, Anderson acknowledged, “I still have things to do.”
Anderson says meth and child abuse cases have been among the most challenging