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Judge Dee Benson, longtime federal judge, dead at 72

FILE: Chief Judge Dee Benson speaks at the Investiture of Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells August 22, 2003 in his courtroom in the Federal Court House in Salt Lake City. Photo: Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News

SANDY, Utah — A well-known, long-serving federal judge in Utah, Dee Benson, has passed away, family members say. The 72-year-old judge was diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year. 

President George H.W. Bush first appointed Benson a federal judge back in 1991. Prior to that, Benson served as U.S. Attorney for Utah, as Sen. Orrin Hatch’s chief of staff, and eventually, associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Washington. 

During his time as a federal judge in Utah, Benson was appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist to serve on the FISA, or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees requests for surveillance warrants such as wiretaps. Later, he was appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts to serve on the Judicial Conference of the United States, a national policy-making body for federal courts.  

Judge Benson remembered by friends and colleagues

Chief Judge Robert Shelby at the US District Court in Salt Lake City issued the following statement: 

The United States District Court for the District of Utah is deeply saddened to announce that beloved United States District Judge Dee Benson passed away this morning at the age of 72.  A brilliant jurist, Judge Benson tirelessly served the District of Utah since his appointment to the bench by President George H. W. Bush in 1991.  His warm and disarming demeanor often belied his stunningly keen intellect.  Beyond his extraordinary legacy as a judge, it is simply not possible to adequately express the measure of Judge Benson’s personal impact on the lives of our court staff and his colleagues on the bench.  He transcended his office and in many ways transformed our court.

US Attorney for Utah John Huber reflected on Benson’s career in a statement sent to KSL by email. 

“It is difficult to imagine Utah’s federal bench and bar without Judge Dee Benson’s presence and positive influence,” Huber wrote. “Judge Benson served as United States Attorney before his appointment as federal district judge. His portrait hangs outside my office. Many attorneys and support professionals in our office have personal connections with him.  As a judge, practitioners knew they would get a fair shake and thoughtful consideration from Judge Benson. In an age of growing incivility, Judge Benson served as a shining example of professionalism, kindness and courtesy.” 

Huber’s office also tweeted out a statement responding to news of Benson’s death. 

Hard at work to the end

In spite of the brain cancer diagnosis in April, Benson worked hard even as recently as last Wednesday, when his twin brother, Deseret News columnist Lee Benson, drove him to his office. 

Lee Benson said his brother’s hallmark as a judge was impartiality. 

“He marveled at people who thought judges were activists or had an agenda,” Lee Benson told the Deseret News

Never intended to be a judge

According to the Deseret News, Judge Dee Benson grew up in Sandy, served a mission to Sweden for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and graduated from Brigham Young University (BYU) with a degree in physical education. He served as a student-teacher and soccer coach at Hillcrest High before deciding to apply to law school. 

“He only went to law school because he didn’t want to be a schoolteacher,” said Lee Benson. “His vague plan was to be a soccer coach at a high school. It took one quarter of student teaching to have him fleeing back to school. He said, ‘Maybe I’ll try law school.’ That’s how much planning went into that.”

He found himself back at BYU, which was just opening up its J. Reuben Clark Law School, eventually finishing near the top of his class in 1976. 

Benson died Monday at his home in Sandy. He was 72.