Craig In summer 1991, Nashville attorney Kirk Seufert found himself in a classroom at the University of Denver preparing for the Colorado bar exam when a young woman sitting two seats away from him caught his attention.
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 were overwhelmed by the prospect of dedicating three months to studying for the bar exam.
“If we’re going to die, this would be a good time,” Gardner remembered 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.
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 Colorado 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 criminal defense attorney in the juvenile justice system.
The road to law
Gardner was born in October 1963 in Zug, Switzerland, to a Swiss mother and an American father. She is the second of three children.
Gardner’s parents had settled in Kauai, Hawaii, but her mother, a pharmacist by training, wanted to have her second child in her native country because of the better quality of medical care.
Although Gardner’s first home was in Hawaii, her father was a resort manager, and his job forced the family to relocate often, making homes in Massachusetts, Illinois and California.
In 1970, Gardner’s father wanted to settle down and moved the family to Steamboat Springs, where her parents founded the 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 freestyle 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.
After school, Gardner returned to Switzerland and worked for several years at a wine import business that was managed by relatives on her mother’s side. It was while she was in Europe that Gardner developed an interest in international politics and human rights.
Gardner had no intention of becoming a lawyer 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 for her first year, she expected an environment similar to Whiteman or Colorado College, where students learned from and helped one another.
“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 as a ski instructor 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.”
Back to school
Gardner’s mother encouraged her to go back to Emory, which she did, and she graduated in spring 1991.
After passing the bar exam later that year, Gardner set her long-term goals aside to obtain practical legal experience in Steamboat.
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 then-Moffat County 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, and in counties with populations of less than 30,000, anyone can throw his or her 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 fiance 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 then-Gov. Bill Owens.
“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.”