Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald (right) introduced 7th District Judge appointee Don Torgerson to the Grand County Council in June. Torgerson was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert to fill the seat that Lyle Anderson vacated. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

On Tuesday, Aug 28, judge Don Torgerson held an open house in Moab as he replaces Lyle Anderson with an appointment to the 7th District court. With Anderson’s departure after 25 years of service, Torgerson’s appointment ushers in changes to the courtroom, but his established relationships in the community are helping to smooth the shift.

“We’ve worked with Judge Torgerson for years as a defense attorney,” Melissa Parriot, a clerk of court, said, “so we know him and it’s been an easy transition … he worked on many different types of civil cases, and he’s very well-rounded, and very well-adjusted, and familiar with our town, with our procedures.”

As a public defense attorney, Torgerson spoke for residents of Moab, along with those from Blanding, Price, Carbon, Emery and San Juan County.

“He is a champion for the people in the community, from what we’ve experienced,” Parriot said.

Torgerson has defended countless Moab residents during his time as a public defender.

“I was practicing here for 10 years as the public defender before, so this is one of my main courtrooms that I practiced in,” he said.

Through serving as defense counsel in several well-known cases, including that of the James Pendleton murder case, and the local arson case concerning Edward Moddrelle, Torgerson gained notoriety in the Utah courts.

When he nominated Torgerson for the 7th district appointment, Gov. Gary Herbert said, “Don Torgerson’s dedication to the law and to the service of others will make him an excellent addition to the bench.”

It is with the motivation to be a champion for the people that Torgerson said he moves into the judicial role.

“I like having more time to work on hard questions,” he said of his new role. “As a practicing attorney, that’s harder. You just don’t have time to give to those questions. As a judge, you have a little more time to give to that.”

Torgerson feels the weight of his decisions, and how they impact the people he sees in the courtroom. “It’s satisfying work to do that,” he said. “The hard part is how you resolve a case in a way that gets the right outcome, but also lets people know that they’re heard and that their concerns were addressed.”

Torgerson’s focus on hearing the concerns of citizens speaks to his belief in the importance of carrying out due process, an area of concern that recently came to a head in San Juan County.

Navajo Nation member Willie Grayeyes became a contentious figure when claims about his residency led to his quick removal from the San Juan County’s ballot; the judge in that case ruled that his due process rights had been violated and said he is a candidate on the ballot.

Weighing in on due process, Torgerson said, “I think people, as a general rule, want to hear that the judge is hearing their concerns, and is giving them a fair response and a fair outcome that’s not influenced by political and other kinds of factors.”

Relating this sentiment to his appointment, he elaborated, “So that’s what I want to be able to do as a judge.”

As a judge, Torgerson will remain active in San Juan County through his involvement with the Monticello drug court.

According to Utah Courts, “Estimates have indicated that in recent years, arrests for drug-related crimes have more than doubled… Drug courts work by recognizing that unless substance abuse ends, fines and jail time are unlikely to prevent future criminal activity. Consequently, drug courts, through frequent testing and court supervision, focus on eliminating drug addiction as a long-term solution to crime.”

As a judge, Torgerson will have greater power to increase his impact in this area.

“I like working with my drug court in Monticello, and it’s nice to be in a different position in that drug court,” he explained.

Already used to frequently making the two-hour drive from Price, where the judge resides, to Moab during his days as a public defender, Torgerson will remain a frequent face in the local courtroom.

“I was familiar with the clerks and the staff, and I just have to figure out how to do the new job,” he said.

Torgerson also believes his experience as a public defender gives him a uniquely beneficial perspective in his role as a judge.

“The experience as a public defender — there are so many hours spent in the courtroom — that a lot of the things that come up, I have seen before as an observer,” he said.

He plans to take this experience and use it to benefit the people in his jurisdiction.

“It’s hard to replace all those hours in court, and I think that’s a huge benefit,” Torgerson said.

After 10 years of service as a public defender, Don Torgerson faces the hard questions asked of a judge

“I think people as a general rule want to hear that the judge is hearing their concerns and is giving them a fair response and a fair outcome that’s not influenced by political and other kinds of factors.”