Retired U.S. District Judge Clarence A. Brimmer, widely regarded as a pillar of the Wyoming legal profession, died Thursday at Boulder Community Foothills Hospital in Boulder, Colo., surrounded by his family. He was 92.
Brimmer was renowned among lawyers in Wyoming both for his knowledge of the law and his insistence on fairness.
President Gerald Ford appointed Brimmer to the federal bench in 1975, following Brimmer’s service as Wyoming’s U.S. attorney and state attorney general.
Brimmer assumed senior status in late 2006 but continued to hear cases until the spring of 2012.
In 2006, Gov. Dave Freudenthal, himself a former U.S. attorney for Wyoming, said Brimmer’s announced retirement from the federal bench that year was a loss to the state’s judicial system.
“In many years of practicing before him as an attorney and abiding by his decisions as governor, I have come to admire his vast intelligence, his common-sense approach and his unwavering sense of fairness,” Freudenthal said at the time.
Brimmer made headlines in early 2008 when he overturned a state death sentence for prison inmate James Harlow, who had been convicted of murder in the stabbing death of Cpl. Wayne Martinez, a Wyoming State Penitentiary guard, at the prison in Rawlins in 1997. Harlow was then one of only two men on Wyoming’s death row.
Brimmer accepted Harlow’s claim that he didn’t get a fair trial before his sentence. His ruling overturning the sentence said Harlow had been denied a fair trial in state court in part because prosecutors had failed to turn over information to the original defense team and because Harlow’s defense team hadn’t gotten adequate resources for the job.
“The trouble I have with all of this is that I have always believed that in this kind of trial, you play the cards face-up, not face-down,” Brimmer said after lawyers made final arguments before him in Harlow’s federal appeal in 2007. “And it looks like they did the opposite.”
Brimmer’s major cases in recent years included disputes over snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park and the federal ban on new road construction in national forests.
“Judge Brimmer had a unique ability to get to the heart of a matter, separate the issues and provide justice to litigants,” said Gov. Matt Mead. “His legacy and his vision have impacted Wyoming for decades and will continue to have positive effect for years to come.”
Brimmer drew fire from environmental groups and even clashed with federal judges in other states over his environmental rulings. He blocked the Clinton-era “roadless rule” on the grounds that the administration hadn’t followed federal environmental laws in enacting it.
“No other federal judge in Wyoming history was more respected for his tenacity, intellect and wit than Judge Brimmer,” said Sen. John Barrasso. “Bud’s passing is a tremendous loss to our state. However, his opinions will continue to shape our land and our legal system for generations to come, and all of us will live freer and better for them.”
Brimmer was born July 11, 1922, in Rawlins to Clarence A. Brimmer Sr. and Geraldine Zingsheim. He graduated from Rawlins High School and the University of Michigan with undergraduate and law degrees. He edited the University of Michigan’s Daily News.
Brimmer served as a sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He moved back to Rawlins in 1947 and joined his father’s law firm, Brimmer and Brimmer, where he gained experience as a trial attorney.
In 1971, Gov. Stan Hathaway appointed Brimmer Wyoming attorney general. He served from 1971 to 1974. From 1974 to 1975, he was the U.S. attorney for the District of Wyoming.
Brimmer was also active in Wyoming politics and served as Republican state chairman from 1967 to 1971.
Brimmer’s son Phil Brimmer was confirmed as a U.S. District Court judge in Colorado in 2008.
Brimmer’s obituary states that people who passed through his courtroom remember his courtesy, fairness, intelligence and deep knowledge. He liked cultivating orchids, travel and his family cabin near Centennial.
He is survived by his children Geraldine, Phil, Andrew and Elizabeth, their spouses, four grandchildren and other family members. He was predeceased by Emily, his wife of 58 years.
Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cheyenne, where he had served on the vestry. A reception will follow at Little America Hotel.