Upheld On Appeal | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Upheld On Appeal 

Thunder Over Zion fails to rehabilitate the image of a controversial judge.

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Biographies written well after the death of the subject offer the benefit of hindsight, and that 20/20 vision can be used to rehabilitate the reputation of a person who was misunderstood while alive. Thunder Over Zion: The Life of Chief Judge Willis W. Ritter, makes such an attempt, trying to convince the reader that rather than being an out-of-control autocrat with lifetime tenure as Utah’s federal district court judge, Ritter was a more complicated figure'a legal genius and visionary who was forced to suffer the slings and arrows of less enlightened, politically motivated fools. Yet despite amassing an impressive amount of information on Ritter’s life, the authors never quite come up with enough evidence to make their case.


The story of how this book came about is interesting in its own right. Patricia F. Cowley heard stories about Ritter from lawyers who attended parties at her home, and became interested enough to research his life. Upon completing that research in the early 1980s, she began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Her notes and drafts were passed on to friend Parker M. Nielson, who completed the work.


The book contains many colorful stories about Ritter’s behavior in and out of court. And who doesn’t love a good story about a federal judge dancing naked with lingerie models at Salt Lake City’s Manhattan Club? But it could have used more of the courtroom anecdotes from attorneys who initially interested Cowley and less legal jargon.


The most intriguing section focuses on the battle that preceded Ritter’s confirmation in the late 1940s, including the LDS Church’s role in the attacks. The documents cited illustrate that, even 60 years later, the way Republicans attack Democrats hasn’t changed a bit: accuse them of infidelity and of being soft on national defense.


The central argument here is that Ritter was hated in conservative, Mormon Utah because he was a non-Mormon liberal with a scandalous personal life who viewed the law as an evolving tool that should be used to help society’s underdogs. He was misunderstood because his rulings were ahead of their time. His legal mind was so sharp, inferior and unprepared attorneys couldn’t keep up with him and misunderstood his genius. To make this argument, Nielson (one assumes he made the final edits) goes from neutral biographer to advocate. He more than once makes statements such as “his ruling was usually the right one,” and characterizes complaints about Ritter as “whining.nn

However, the book often cites a ruling by Ritter only to state later the decision was reversed on appeal. Nielson fails to acknowledge just how often higher courts found Ritter to be wrong. A simple Google search shows that in 1977, Time magazine conducted an analysis showing that through 1975, Ritter was overturned 58 percent of the time in civil cases, 40 percent in criminal cases and 76 percent in habeas corpus cases. Thirty years on, a review or challenge of such numbers, or even an acknowledgement of their existence, should have been included in the book.


Even if one accepts that Ritter was attacked for his personal failings rather than for his legal abilities, this pro-Ritter account still demonstrates that he considered himself above having to follow legal precedent, set his schedule to make things easier for himself rather than for litigants, banned attorneys he didn’t like from his court, locked up postal employees for making too much noise in the courthouse, barred Salt Lake City from issuing parking tickets for a 10-day period, issued jury instructions that would generally require the jury to decide the case the way he wanted and intimidated attorneys with the implicit threat that anyone who got in his dog house stood no chance in his court.


That’s no way to run a justice system'no matter how talented the chief justice.


nPatricia F. Cowley
nParker M. Nielson
n372 pages

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