The Good Fight
Paul M. Warner: ‘The more you do for others, the more you do for yourself.’
By Jennifer Weaver. Previously published in VALOR, October 2018.
The home office of Paul Michael Warner is covered from ceiling to floor with plaques, paintings, photographs and personal memorabilia of his alma maters, military service, legal career, his family and heritage. They are awe-inspiring depictions of a life lived by a man who never wanted to be anything other than a lawyer.
Though he’ll tell you he identifies as a judge, he credits it all to his love for justice and the transforming power of course correction from legal intervention. Warner grew up in Salt Lake City and graduated from East High School, followed by 18 months of higher education at Brigham Young University. He then served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines Islands, which is 600 miles from Vietnam. He became well-acquainted with soldiers serving at a nearby Naval base, and the character of those servicemen influenced him greatly.
Though the draft into the Vietnam War was a reality Warner faced upon returning home from his mission, out of 73 physicals examinations conducted from his draft notice, two flunked: Warner was one of those. An Achilles tendon injury he sustained while playing high school basketball declared him ineligible to serve — a classification 4F.
“Long story short, I go to law school,” Warner said. To be exact, Warner received his bachelor’s degree in English from BYU in 1973 and went on to graduate in the charter class of the J. Reuben Clark Law School in 1976. He searched the place he could gain the most experience as a trial lawyer, and the military was his answer. And though he was reluctant, he applied for the Navy because of what he had witnessed while serving on his LDS mission.
“I go in for another physical and this time the doctor at the induction center takes me aside and says, ‘Well, I see that you were 4F a few years ago, but to be honest with you, I don’t care anything about your foot. I want to know why you want to go into the military,’” Warner recounted. “I told him I’d heard you could get a lot of experience as a trial lawyer in the military and he said, ‘Okay, you want in, it’s your funeral.’ I’ll never forget it. He checked the box and gave me a waiver. He never looked at my foot, never looked at my Achilles and 31 years later I retired from the military.”
After serving six years of active duty in the Navy in San Diego, California, as a judge advocate general, Warner returned to Utah. He joined the Navy reserve for a year and then switched over to the Utah Army National Guard, where he said he found “high-quality people.” He retired in 2006, but not before earning a master’s degree in public administration.
Warner went on to become a federal magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. Prior to that appointment, he was a decorated trial lawyer, and elected to one of the highest honors bestowed to attorneys, as a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers.
“As I look back at nearly a 45-year career, the heart of my career was the years I served as the U.S. Attorney,” Warner said. “My skill set matched up with that job and I had a wonderful experience.”
When Warner retired from the Guard, he was asked to be part of their Honorary Colonel Corp (HCC) in Utah where he served on the board of directors for a number of years. Every year, he volunteers as a guest speaker about the justice system for the Guard’s Freedom Academy and American Legion’s Girls State, both week-long training programs for high school student leaders from across the state.
Warner now dedicates his time to presiding over the Veterans Court he started in 2010 after reading a magazine in the waiting room at the Veterans Affairs hospital while his father-in-law was being treated. A one-page story about Veterans Court — a treatment court in New York — inspired him to found the first federal Veterans Court in the country.
Those who go through his court successfully are given a specially designed Challenge Coin: one side depicts the U.S. District Court of Utah seal, and the other side of the VA, which is the court’s partner, providing treatment and other services.
“For the last eight years, once a month we have these guys come in, and they stand up in front of the bench and we talk about their progress,” Warner said. “I, quite frankly, become personal with them — they’re with me typically about a year and we’ve had some wonderful stories.”
Warner shared the story of one man who appeared before his court who’d been sleeping under a tarp near the VA campus during winter. One night, the man snuck into the VA hospital in the middle of the night to take a shower and he was cited for trespassing. The man appeared in Warner’s court with the citation and it was discovered he had a drinking problem and other issues. Through the court, the man was provided with housing and vocational training, and now works for the VA and is pursuing higher education, Warner said.
But a not-so-successful outcome in his first case is what drives him to double his efforts on behalf of veterans to this day. Jacob Melton was an Army Ranger veteran, having served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had a 70 percent disability rating from the VA because of a traumatic brain injury, Warner said. He’d witnessed a lot of his friends killed and suffered from raging post traumatic
“In my mind’s eye, I can see him to this day,” Warner said. “He came to my veteran’s court, and was doing remarkable — and one day, after eight months, he killed himself. The first one in my court. It was devastating for me. I didn’t know what to do.”
What he did was seek advice from a trusted friend and learned that suicide rates among veterans is high in the United States — 22 every day. He decided then and there to use Melton’s story to
motivate him rather than discourage him, and the court continues to this day with hundreds served.
“I will never forget Jacob. I can remember him vividly the last day he was in my courtroom,” Warner said. “He posted up, as we call it in the military, he stood at attention — and there is truly a band-of-brothers’ mentality in Veterans Court because they know that one another has suffered the same kinds of things. I think it really helps that they know I’ve been in the military, even though I never served in combat.”
But fighting for veterans is something Warner intends to do for the rest of his life.
“I’m very proud of my military career — but you don’t claim to be what you’re not,” Warner said. “We are in combat of our own, and the fight is the fight to reclaim their lives — and the more you do for others, the more you do for yourself.”
He concluded, “As I look back on my judging career, my Veterans Court will be the thing I remember most because — and I say this very humbly — I truly believe I’ve been doing God’s
work to help these veterans. It’s very, very gratifying.”
Jennifer Weaver is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer from Utah. She is the mother of three children and daughter of Vietnam KIA Sgt. 1st Class James C. Jensen, D Co, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cav Division.
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