A leap of faith landed in the law
A winding road — and a bungee jump — brought local judge to the bench
February 1, 2012
“Not every person has agreed with my past decisions, nor will everyone agree with my future decisions. Disagreement is inevitable. But, hopefully at the end of the day, the persons who come before me can say they had the opportunity to appear before a fair and impartial judge, who allowed them to be heard, and who rendered her decision according to the law.”
In the summer of 1991, young Nashville attorney Kirk Seufert found himself in a classroom at the University of Denver preparing for the Colorado Bar exam.
As Seufert resisted the urge to take a nap, a young woman sitting two seats away caught his attention.
As Seufert learned later, the woman was Sandy Gardner.
"She was bright, not just intellectually, but she also had this bright hair," Seufert recalled. "She was relatively quiet, but very, very articulate once I got her to open up."
He struck up a conversation with Gardner after class and the two agreed to be study partners. While getting to know each other, Gardner and Seufert found they had something in common: they both were overwhelmed by the prospect of dedicating three months to passing the bar.
"If we're going to die, this would be a good time," Gardner remembers saying to Seufert.
Seufert, an adrenaline junkie, took her words and ran with them. He suggested they tempt fate by bungee jumping.
"You know, Kirk, that is a wonderful idea," Gardner said. "Let's go bungee jumping, and if we die, we won't have to spend the next three months in misery."
Looking back on it more than 20 years later, Seufert said had their paths not crossed in a bar exam prep class he's not sure Gardner would have been so quick to take the risk.
"I think it's funny that one wouldn't normally bungee jump unless you're studying for the bar," he said. "It's a really scary time because you've invested all of this time and spent all of this money to be a lawyer, but if you don't pass the bar, you don't get to practice. It's insane."
Gardner and Seufert connected with Adrenaline Adventures, a Front Range company that specialized in bungee jumps from the basket of a hot air balloon.
Long story short, they survived to study another day, several of them in fact.
In August 1991, after three grueling months of preparation, Gardner and Seufert each took the bar exam and passed.
Shortly thereafter, Gardner moved to Steamboat Springs to begin a law career that eventually resulted in appointment to the bench. Seufert returned to Nashville where he became a respected criminal defense attorney in the juvenile justice system.
Moffat County Court Judge Sandra Gardner was born in October 1963 in Zug, Switzerland, to a Swiss mother and American father.
She is the second of three children and the only child in her family born overseas.
Gardner's parents had settled in Kauai, Hawaii, but her mother, a pharmacist, wanted to have her second child in her native country because of the quality medical care.
Although Gardner's first home was in Hawaii, her father was a resort manager and his job required the family to relocate often.
For the first seven years of her life, Gardner lived on the island of Kauai, and in Massachusetts, Chicago, Ill., and Monterey, Calif.
In 1970, Gardner's father wanted to settle down, and he moved the family to Steamboat Springs, where her parents founded Butcher Shop Restaurant and operated it for more than 40 years.
Like many children raised in Ski Town USA, Gardner had early aspirations of becoming an Olympic bump skier.
She also excelled as an actor at the Lowell Whiteman School and later earned a bachelor's degree in German from Colorado College in Colorado Springs at age 20.
After school, Gardner returned to the country of her birth and worked for a number of years at a wine import business run by relatives on her mother's side. It was while in Europe that Gardner developed an interest in international politics and human rights.
Gardner had no intention of being an attorney, but decided to return to the U.S. to attend law school at Emory University in Atlanta in hopes of one day becoming a diplomat.
When Gardner arrived at Emory, she expected an environment similar to the Socratic Method of Whiteman and CC where people learned from and helped each other.
"But, law school is a business school that is all about getting to the top of your class in the first year," Gardner said. "It was very cutthroat and very dissatisfying."
She moved back to Steamboat after a year at Emory to work days at ski school and nights in the family restaurant.
"It was brutal, to be honest. I was exhausted and feeling like this wasn't really what I was meant to do," Gardner said. "I remember being in the Thunderhead Lodge with 25 kids in my class, feeling very overwhelmed thinking about how many gloves, hats, goggles, skis and poles I had to keep track of.
"Then, a darling little boy came up and coughed right in my face."
Within weeks Gardner contracted mononucleosis.
It was at her absolute physical lowest that Gardner's mother pushed her back to Emory. She graduated in the spring of 1991.
After passing the bar exam later that year, Gardner set her long-term goals aside to obtain practical legal experience in Steamboat Springs.
She practiced law for the next nine years, first as an associate in a small firm and later on her own. She was getting ready to chase the dream of being a diplomat when in 2000 she was contacted by Moffat County Court Judge Mary Lynn James.
James was considering retirement and wanted Gardner to be her successor.
In Colorado, county judges are appointed for a provisional term by the governor. It is also a little-known fact that in counties with populations of less than 30,000 people, anyone can throw their name into the applicant pool regardless of legal background.
"That's why I became a judge," Gardner said. "It came down to the question, if not me, then who?
"I firmly believed then and I still believe now that in order to sit in this position you must have previous experience as an attorney or a level of expertise on the law."
Gardner considered her options and decided to move her practice to Moffat County with her fiancé and now husband, Turner duPont.
But, James had a change of heart and ended up sitting on the bench for another six years.
In hindsight, it was one of the best things to happen to Gardner's career.
"Things were changing in Steamboat," Gardner said. "There was a lot of growth and a different group of people moving in. I loved working in Moffat County because it was a working-class community where a handshake still meant something."
Gardner built her Moffat County practice from the ground up on little more than good intentions with the promise of payment to come later.
"That's what being a lawyer is all about," she said. "Being a problem solver and helping people. Compensation is secondary.
"Moffat County is a community where I thought I could really make a difference. It's much harder to do that in a community like Steamboat because of all of the fragmented interests."
In 2006, James decided to step down.
Gardner went through the appointment process and was approved as the replacement for James by Gov. Bill Owens.
Although she was sad to give up her practice, Gardner was motivated to participate in more than 230 years of legal tradition and to ensure the fundamental American value of "equal justice under the law" continued to thrive in Northwest Colorado.
"Not every person has agreed with my past decisions, nor will everyone agree with my future decisions," Gardner said. "Disagreement is inevitable. But, hopefully at the end of the day, the persons who come before me can say they had the opportunity to appear before a fair and impartial judge, who allowed them to be heard, and who rendered her decision according to the law."
Seufert said that philosophy is on point with the core values he knows Gardner to possess.
"Sandy is an interesting person because she truly has a pure integrity and yet she's not harsh," Seufert said. "What I mean is I'm a situational ethicist. I will bend and break the rules if I think it's the right thing to do.
"What Sandy will do is stick to those rules and figure out a way to accomplish the same thing. It takes a special person to be able to do that."
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