Sentencing, on the other hand, he found hard. There was always that horrible moment, after he heard the tremendous advocacy, the arguments, the pleas. Suddenly there was silence--and he had to decide. That was hell. That also was what he'd signed up for.
He didn't have a typical judge's background. For one thing, he'd never finished high school. He grew up in Australia, one of four siblings. His alcoholic father was abusive with his mother. By the time Hilder was 14 and more than 6 feet tall, he was intervening, getting his dad in headlocks. By 15, he'd left home.
For years, he found jobs where he could. He apprenticed on a farm. He labored over pipelines in underground tunnels. He worked as a bartender and bouncer by night, a bank clerk by day. He was making his way, but at the age of 24, he thought his life empty. He had few friends and little social life beyond the bars where he drank.
Then, as he sat in his apartment one night, reading a book on Lenin and Stalin--one of many history volumes in his self-improvement program--there came a knock on the door. A reformed drinking buddy had sent two Mormon missionaries his way. At first Hilder listened only out of curiosity. The curiosity soon turned to interest. He admired these young men's commitment and aestheticism, but what he embraced most was the sense of family they offered. They made him feel part of something.
Within two weeks, he'd joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; within six months, he was a Bible teacher and Sunday school president. He felt so needed. Asked if he wanted to do missionary work, he readily agreed, setting off on a two-year tour of southern Australia.
There he grew close to the mission president, a lawyer from Salt Lake City. Hilder thought him an excellent role model. Far more so than his own father. When Hilder returned to Sydney from his mission, he found his dad in a halfway house, recently released from jail. He was 60 and looked pathetic. Once a successful wool and sheepskin broker, he was living a drunken transient's life that took him to dry-out cells and psychiatric wards. Hilder had visited him as often as he could in these places. Yet it seemed as if his father wanted more from him--a rescue. He wrote Hilder letters, saying we need to make plans. I'm feeling stronger, he reported, as if to show he could be like his son. I'm reading the Book of Mormon, I'm meeting missionaries.
Hilder had hated his father for a time but had never deserted him. Now he could not think of a way to help him, for he'd met a woman on his Mormon mission, and they planned to move to the United States. Two weeks before he was to leave, Hilder got the call on a cold May morning: His father had hanged himself. This, Hilder believed, was his dad's response to hopelessness, to the prospect of his son leaving. At the funeral, an elderly aunt mentioned that his father had left a letter for him. Hilder never asked for it, never saw it. He was starting a new life. He just didn't want to know.
A month later in Utah's Mormon Temple, he married the woman from his mission. Ten months later came their first son. Hilder was 28, with a 10th-grade education. For a while, he made a living at day labor, then found a job as bookkeeper for a demolition company.
Desperate to do better, he took a high school equivalency test and then the college Scholastic Aptitude Test, scoring in the 99th percentile on both, a feat he credits to a lifetime of voracious reading. In January 1979, he was accepted at the University of Utah, from which he graduated 2 1/2 years later, a political science major with a nearly straight-A average. By the time he enrolled in the university's law school, he had three children. He earned his law degree at 35. Within 11 years, he was a Mormon bishop and managing partner at a Salt Lake City law firm.
That's when Utah's governor appointed Hilder, a Democrat in a very Republican state, to the bench. Eventually, he began sitting in Summit County, commuting from his Salt Lake City home. Over the last six years, he has earned the trust and warm regard of prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Their testimonials on his behalf focus as much on his humanity as his legal acuity. They say there "probably is no more decent person in the legal profession than Judge Hilder." They call him "one of the kindest, most compassionate, gentlest people to sit on the bench." They think no jurist is "more prepared, fair and understanding than Judge Hilder."
That's not to say he's a pushover. He is seen as more complex than that. In one well-publicized case, Hilder sent a child molester to prison against all recommendations. Yet in another case, he spared a teenage boy who'd somehow accelerated his car into a crowd, killing two people. Hilder knew he should lock him up, but what he saw before him was a sweet kid he just couldn't send to jail.