Gun case dooms judge’s confirmation
Criticizing Silver Springs resident Robert Hilder’s temperament, state senators rejected him for a seat on the Utah Court of Appeals ending the bid of the controversial 3rd District Court judge, who is popular among lawyers in Park City.
"I had a ton of emails on both sides of the issue, many people saying he was the greatest thing that had ever happened, and other people saying he was terrible, inconsiderate and inconsistent," Republican Sen. Allen Christensen, who represents most of eastern Summit County, said in a telephone interview. "The first email said, ‘Thank you so much, you did a wonderful job. This is what we pay you for.’ And the next several just lambasted us. One said, ‘I’m a constituent and I can work against you’ — almost threats."
The 16-12 vote against Hilder Wednesday in the Senate was unusual as most judicial confirmations are uneventful affairs. Christensen voted against Hilder and Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, a Republican who serves Park City, voted to confirm the judge to the Appeals court.
Constituents who bombarded senators with emails demanding Hilder not be approved were concerned mostly about Hilder’s siding with the University of Utah in a 2003 spat with state lawmakers about the banning of concealed weapons on campus.
Hilder’s judicial career has included several high-profile cases in Summit County, including the 2001 sentencing of Paul Wayment to jail after pleading no contest to the negligent death of his toddler son during a hunting expedition. The case drew national attention after Wayment committed suicide before reporting to jail.
Hilder also was asked about his handling of a child custody case in Summit County that ended with the death of Natalie Turner near Park City Aug. 8, 2003. David Turner, the woman’s father, blames the death of his daughter on decisions Hilder made in the divorce case.
Natalie Turner was shot to death by police after allegedly shooting her ex-husband at his Wasatch County home and fleeing with the injured man and her boyfriend on State Road 248.
Christensen sided against Hilder’s confirmation to the Appeals court.
"He did show a bit of temper at being pushed on some of these issues," Christensen said about the judge’s questioning by the Senate. "When it finally came down to it, I just said if we have this much concern, it’s not a matter of he’s the only one we get to choose."
But many lawyers consider Hilder one of the best judges in the state.
"I was disappointed that Judge Hilder did not find a favorable vote to the Court of Appeals. I think he is one of the best judges in the state," said Democrat Sen. Ross Romero, a lawyer who previously served the Snyderville Basin in the state House of Representatives. "We were getting letters from many members of the Utah State Bar. They all said, in a vast majority of the responses, that [Hilder] was one of the top judges in the state."
Meanwhile, Van Tassell explained why he voted with mostly Democrats to confirm Hilder.
"Probably the most controversial of everything was his decision that involved guns on the University of Utah," Van Tassell said. "That wasn’t really a Second Amendment issue as much as it was determining who had the authority in the state of Utah to regulate guns. The university was making some claims to their right to rule and of course the Legislature felt like that was there’s."
Before this week’s vote, Van Tassell said he met with Hilder privately in Salt Lake City at the Little America hotel for nearly 90 minutes.
"This is a judge who has been there for 13 years and has made a lot of decisions," Van Tassell said. "I don’t know many perfect people in this world and I felt like he had been a good judge."
Van Tassell acknowledged, "There were some pretty big emotions from Park City because of a couple cases that had happened in that area."
"I feel comfortable in the way I voted and I don’t have any regrets," Van Tassell said. "But in two years, when I run for re-election, I’ll probably have some regrets."
Van Tassell said he didn’t see Hilder’s temper flare.
"He’s very intelligent," the senator said.
Senators who voted against Hilder hadn’t experienced the judge’s courtroom demeanor, Romero lamented.
"[Lawyers] know Judge Hilder and we see him every day. Those senators who voted not to confirm him don’t have the same opportunity for interaction," Romero said. "Their views are formed from those that are willing to engage their elected representatives who have had an unpleasant experience in front of the court and in front of perhaps Judge Hilder."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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