A.Sherman Christensen's love for the law spans nearly eight decades. He was only 8 when he sat behind the judge's bench for the first time in his father's empty courtroom in central Utah, and he was 85 when he received the 1990 American Bar Association Medal in August.
The bar's highest honor recognizes individuals who have "rendered conspicuous service in the cause of American Jurisprudence."He began his tenure as a judge in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the United Sates District Court for the State of Utah. Judge Christensen, then 48, was the first Latter-day Saint since territorial days to be named to a federal court.
In 1971, he became a senior judge, assigned as needed to hear cases in appellate courts throughout the federal system. From 1975 to 1978, he was an adjunct professor of law at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School. About that same time, Judge Christensen was appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger as first chairman of the Inns of Court ad hoc committee. On that committee, Judge Christensen had a major role in establishing American Inns of Court, a program similar to a British system designed to broaden law students' formal legal education by allowing them to experience actual legal concepts. The first American Inns of Court was established at BYU in 1980 with the support of then Dean Rex E. Lee. There are now 125 Inns of Court throughout the nation.
Judge Christensen, who still has nearly ram-rod straight posture and whose social courtesies refreshingly reflect long-held good manners, is a volunteer in what he describes as a "new wave in law," alternative dispute resolution. He serves as a settlement judge, meeting with parties involved in lawsuits. He describes his aim simply: "We try to see if we can work out a reasonable solution to save the time of the court and the clients' expenses."
Early childhood experiences helped set the course of Judge Christensen's life in the courtroom. "My father [A.H. Christensen] was my model," he said. "I vividly remember going to his courtroom, which was in an old building in Manti, Utah. You had to go up a rickety flight of stairs to the second floor. There was a big pot-bellied stove that the sheriff kept stoked with coal.
"I went to the court because I was interested in law; I always wanted to be a lawyer. I remember when I was very young, the sheriff in Price [in eastern Utah] took an interest in me. He gave me a beautiful sword. I passed that on to my oldest grandson."
Even today that "sword of justice" evokes powerful memories of his boyhood experiences with the law. In his mind's eye, he still sees his father and mother sitting at the breakfast table early one morning.
"Father did not know I was standing in the doorway," he recalled. "He was telling Mother about his experience in a capital murder case of condemning a man to die. Under the law, the condemned had the right to choose whether to be shot or hanged. I heard Father say to Mother, `Jenny, that's a terrible choice to put before any fellow human being.' "
Overhearing that comment, young Sherman Christensen decided he never wanted to be a judge.
Another experience wedged in his mind occurred when he was about 10 inside the Utah State Prison where his father took him on an inspection tour. He, his father and the prison warden entered a cell block and the outer door clanged shut behind them. The men walked on, but young Sherman lagged behind. A door closed between the men and the boy.
"There I was," he recalled. "I was locked in. I was just desperate. But they missed me and returned pretty soon. Father said,
How did you like the jail, Sherman?' I said,I didn't like it.'
"In those days, the cells smelled of some awful disinfectant. It was a rather depressing place. My father said, `Sherman, anytime you're tempted to break the law, just remember that jail smell.' He lightly passed it off, but I've always remembered that.
"Maybe that led me sometimes to be more considerate of criminals I had to sentence. I tried to be fair. I couldn't forget that jail is a serious but an essential place."
As judge, he presided over some cases involving kidnappings, robberies and various offenses where prison sentences could run up to life.
"It's an awesome responsibility to incarcerate people for even a minute in an ill-smelling cell, not to mention days, months and years, and maybe a lifetime," he said. "I feel very keenly about that, but I also feel very keenly about the public's interest in having the law administered fairly but firmly."
Judge Christensen struggled to get his education in law. After attending BYU, he went to Washington, D.C. There, he and his bride, the former Lois Bowen, whom he described as "the prettiest girl at BYU," lived on a diet of straight beans just before pay day. Lois worked for a time to help pay their bills. He earned less than $100 a month, working as a file clerk in the War Department.
He wanted to go to George Washington University, but couldn't afford it. Then he met the chancellor of National University who hired him part-time. That job, plus his job at the War Department and Lois' work made it possible for him to study at National University, which ran a night school and is now part of George Washington Law Center.
"Chancellor Carusi was writing a book on English law," Judge Christensen said. "He learned I knew a little shorthand. I stretched how much I knew, I'm afraid. I spent the whole night in the library on the first dictation I took, trying to transcribe my notes. I got by."
He became proficient in shorthand by practicing as his wife dictated long passages to him. He passed the Civil Service examination and rose to the rank of stenographer. He later became assistant business specialist. He eventually received a doctorate in law.
After he received his law degree, he returned to Utah and practiced with his father, then a trial attorney; later, his two brothers joined the practice. Of working with his father, he said, "We practiced for about 20 years, with some time out when I went into the Navy during World War II. We practiced law without a scratch of the pen between us. Some partners fight. We never raised our voices except in legal arguments about points of law. We enjoyed so much discussing law between us."
During the years, he wrote numerous articles on law. However, he did not confine his writings to law. He wrote and published two books of poetry.
Enjoying his work as a trial attorney, he never aspired to sit behind the bench. Then one day, while reading a newspaper, he saw his name among a list of other attorneys named as possible appointees to the federal court. A 4 a.m. phone call informed him that his name was on the list of the final few submitted to President Eisenhower. He was appointed by the President and approved by the Senate.
His childhood venture behind the bench in his father's empty courtroom, it seems, foreshadowed future reality.
Elder Harold B. Lee, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, told him, "I'm not going to advise you on what you do except for this: You can render the greatest service to your country and, incidentally, to the Church, by being a good judge."
"I felt that was my charge," said Judge Christensen. After he received the American Bar Association's highest award, he said he felt unworthy to be counted in history along with the former recipients, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Warren E. Burger.
"The way I reconcile myself to this honor," he said, "is to realize I'm still a young man. I'm only 85. With hard work, maybe I can still partly merit this unexpected honor."