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Bench Book

Judge Brooke Wells

By Robert O. Rice

It may be some time before a story about newly-appointed federal magistrate Judge Brooke Wells does not begin with a story about her predecessor, the late Judge Ronald Boyce. After all, Judge Wells is widely regarded as having taken Judge Boyce’s place -- his robe even hangs in her chambers, a gift from Judge Boyce’s widow, Darlene Boyce. Judge Boyce also left a deep impression on Judge Wells: “He was such a unique person,” she recalled, describing his years on the bench as a “time in life when everything was right” and concluding that “we were blessed with him under those circumstances.”

But with Judge Boyce now gone, Judge Wells is the first to admit that she is replacing the irreplaceable. “While the robe fits, the shoes never will,” she said, pointing to Judge Boyce’s old garment hanging on a hook in her chambers. “Fortunately for me, it’s quite a legacy to have inherited his position, but there is no expectation that anyone, much less me, would ever completely fill his position.”

Still, if there ever could be an understudy to Judge Boyce, Judge Wells may have the resume for it. He taught her at the S. J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah, where Judge Wells graduated in 1977. After nearly 14 years practicing in the Utah Legal Defenders Office, Judge Wells became Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1994, where she spent countless hours in Judge Boyce’s courtroom. In that capacity, and to her surprise, she became something of a Boyce protege. “He, for reasons unclear to me, allowed me during the past seven or eight years into his circle of humor and he enjoyed bantering with me,” she said.

In one story, Judge Wells, then a U.S. Attorney, walked into Judge Boyce’s chambers and he fired at question at her: “What country in the world grows the most wheat?” he asked. “Several answers raced through my head,” Judge Wells said, “and I blurted out, China!” It was an educated guess on Judge Wells’ part, but a correct one. “That pleased him to no end, but he would have liked it if I had been wrong, too, because of course, he could have told me why I was wrong.”

The back-and-forth between the Judge and the U.S. Attorney went on for years, with Judge Boyce quizzing Judge Wells on legal minutia and trivia about her native Oklahoma and historical facts. But Judge Wells enjoyed no special treatment from Judge Boyce once court was in session. “I was lucky because he enjoyed doing that with me. But never, even though I was allowed within that circle of wit, never once was an inch of slack cut. He once told me to register my case with the AKC (the American Kennel Club) because it was a dog.”

But back to the story about Judge Wells. A trip west, to Lake Tahoe to be specific, lured her from the plains of Oklahoma to the mountains of the west and eventually to Salt Lake City. She obtained her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Utah and stayed at the U for her 1977 juris doctor. She then took the Utah bar exam, but immediately moved to San Antonio, Texas, “under the theory that often times you have to leave someplace to find out how much you liked it and how much you want to return.” In Texas, Judge Wells practiced as a legal services lawyer, providing civil legal assistance to indigent clients for two and a half years.

Texas, however, soon proved correct Judge Wells’ hypothesis about missing the place one left behind. She returned directly to Salt Lake City and the Legal Defenders Office, representing criminal defendants. Judge Wells stayed put at the Legal Defenders Office for nearly 15 years, maintaining a vigorous trial practice. She then moved to the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in 1994, where she was Chief of the Violent Crimes Section until she was selected for the federal bench in early 2003.

The transition from the defense side of the bar to the prosecution presented its challenges, requiring that she familiarize herself with federal sentencing guidelines and getting acquainted with subtle differences in procedure. Jumping the fence to the prosecution side also turned some heads in the legal community. “But I have believed in due process for all those years. . . . When I made the switch, I mentally prepared myself to do the best job that I could. I knew that there would be some criticism among those who were in the defense bar, but I consciously made the decision that I would continue to ensure that due process was done.”

Her success as a criminal defense lawyer won her numerous accolades. In 1992, Judge Wells became the first Utah woman inducted into the American Board of Criminal Lawyers. In 1993, she became the first Utah woman to join the American College of Trial Lawyers. In 1992, she was named one of ten “Remarkable Utah Women” by Governor Mike Leavitt’s Commission for Women and Families.

Now that she has been on the Bench for a short while, Judge Wells offers a few observations. First, she commends the Utah bar for its high level of courtroom practice. She also applauds lawyers for their civil conduct in her courtroom. There is, however, one area that has surprised her. “On the limited number of civil matters that I have had hearings on, I have been astounded at the sheer volume of paper which, when reduced to its principal elements, is much less in terms of what really is relevant to the topic.” Her advice, particularly to civil litigators, is to “cut to the chase” in motion practice. For lessons on trial practice, look to the criminal bar. “There really are some wonderful trial lawyers out there that, in the broader legal community, are not well known. And that’s really too bad because I’ve always thought watching was the very best way to learn. People should stop in and watch some criminal lawyers at work – it’s really a good way to learn.”

With the advent of a third magistrate in the Federal District Court, there will be some small administrative changes, most particularly relating to the magistrates’ criminal calendars. Judge Samuel Alba will hold his criminal calendar between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m.; Judge David Nuffer’s criminal calendar is from 10:00 to 12:00 and Judge Wells will hold her criminal calendar from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Judge Wells has a warm and active family life off the bench. There is her only child, Jason, now a young professional in business management in Florida. He is her honor’s “pride and joy,” not to mention a former All Big West football player during his college days at Cal State Fullerton. Regarding her husband, Kayle Hardy, a case manager with Criminal Justice Services for the Utah Third District Court, he is “the single most kindest, gentlest man in the world.” The Judge and Mr. Hardy “gallop through life together. I say gallop because we are horse people.” She and her husband keep horses in south Salt Lake County and, in the winter, San Pete County. On weekends, look for the family riding trails, tending to barn duties and playing with the family’s two Springer Spaniels.

Robert Rice is a Shareholder at Ray, Quinney & Nebeker.