Article, “raconteur, Bon Vivant, Senior Judge”: a Tribute to Monroe Mckay

Publication year2020
CitationVol. 33 No. 4 Pg. 14
Article, “Raconteur, Bon Vivant, Senior Judge”: A Tribute to Monroe McKay
Vol. 33 No. 4 Pg. 14
Utah Bar Journal
August, 2020

July, 2020

By Clifford B. Parkinson and The Honorable Dee V. Benson


In an interview some thirty years ago, Judge Monroe G. McKay of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals said, “I hope to serve my full term as a judge – they are appointed for life, you know.” On March 28, 2020, at the age of 91, Judge McKay realized that hope, passing away peacefully while still active as a senior judge for the circuit. Just two weeks before his death, he had heard an important Kansas voting rights case in Denver. See Fish v. Schwab, 957 F.3d 1105 (10th Cir. 2020). Judge McKay died “a legend on our court,” who according to Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich “epitomized the qualities of a great judge – patience, learnedness, open mindedness, and a strong work ethic.” Another admirer, who worked as Judge McKay’s associate in private practice, went on the record during Judge McKay’s lifetime to say he hoped the United States would adopt the Japanese custom of declaring living persons national monuments “because he embodies the highest of our profession’s and nation’s aspirations.” Charles F. Wilkinson, Home Dance, the Hopi, and Black Mesa Coal: Conquest and Endurance in the American Southwest, 1996 BYU L. rev. 449, 449.

If you were to ask the judge himself about the many appellations he was given, he might say he was most fond of “raconteur,” – a gifted and amusing storyteller. Numerous colleagues and friends remember his warm and magnetic personality. He loved people, and he loved spending time with people. One of his favorite pastimes was trading stories with colleagues and friends. When he assumed senior status, one of his colleagues gave him a box of customized business cards. In addition to bearing the seal of the Tenth Circuit, each card was inscribed with Judge McKay’s name, along with the words, “Raconteur, Bon Vivant, Senior Circuit Judge.” Judge McKay could not have loved the gift more.

We hope the following sketch captures the essence of Judge McKay’s life, career, and jurisprudence.

Formative Years: Huntsville and Beyond

The third of eight children, Monroe was born in the family home in Huntsville, Utah. His mother, Elizabeth Catherine Peterson McKay, gave birth to him in the very room his father, James Gunn McKay, was born in some forty-seven years before. It was also the same room where Monroe’s father would later die when Monroe was only thirteen. Monroe’s mother, Elizabeth, would go on to raise the eight children on her own. After long days tending to her brood, she would add to the family’s meager income by sewing late into the night.

As a child, Monroe threw himself into the family sheep-herding business. Later in life, he regaled his clerks with tales of the difficult work. He described bone-chilling winters when the cattle froze, dead where they stood. And he disgusted the city slickers in his chambers with graphic descriptions of how to castrate lambs with one’s teeth – a common, if unsterile, technique.

To take a break from this grueling work, Monroe enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of eighteen, where he served from 1946 until 1948. Although proud of his service, Monroe would often downplay his contributions. He was quick to distinguish himself from his fellow veterans who had served in wartime. He appreciated the additional sacrifices they made so he could serve in a time of peace. After a few years at Camp Pendleton, Monroe was honorably discharged and returned to Huntsville.

In 1950, he surprised his family (and the whole town of Huntsville) when he accepted a call to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He had not previously been known for his piety. Monroe’s mission call took him to South Africa from 1950–1952, where he served in the same region where his father proselytized four decades earlier. His time in apartheid South Africa became a touchstone in Monroe’s life. The injustices he witnessed under apartheid motivated what would become his lifelong sympathy for the oppressed. He would return to the African continent many times in his life; its cultures shaped his philosophies and character.

An Unlikely Student

After returning from his missionary service, Monroe traveled the country as a teletype mechanic. He had no plans for formal education. After a few years of watching Monroe wander, his academically inclined brother Quinn convinced him to give education a try. In his recounting of events, Monroe enrolled at Brigham Young University as a...

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