Because of his unique heritage and upbringing, Sean Reyes is better able to navigate many challenging issues facing the state in his role as Utah attorney general. In a personal capacity, Reyes is as passionate about serving his community and setting a positive example for his own family as he is with everything he does.
All in the Family
“My great-grandfather, grandfather and his first cousin, ‘Uncle’ Ramon Magsaysay (my father’s godfather) were instrumental to the United States during the Japanese occupation in World War II. They led guerrilla forces in the Philippines,” Reyes said. Magsaysay went on to serve as a congressman and secretary of national defense before becoming president of the Philippines. Reyes’ father, Norberto Antonio “Buddy” Reyes’ background is half Spanish and half Filipino.
Years after Magsaysay’s death, the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos threatened to kill Buddy Reyes, a renowned artist and entertainer, because of his outspoken views about the government. Buddy Reyes immigrated to the United States legally and immediately made an impact. “As he had for the Pope, my father painted a picture of Rev. King after he had just been tragically slain,” Reyes said. “He won the inaugural Martin Luther King national art contest and Mrs. King, a group of lawyers and senators helped my dad establish himself with citizenship. Shortly after that, Dad married Mom and we tease him that he did things backward.”
“My mother is half Japanese, half Native Hawaiian. She taught in inner city schools and rose to become a high school principal. She was very strict (an A minus grade was the same as a fail) and honor and respect were paramount. Extended members of her family had been interned during World War II and served our country in the Fighting 442nd Regiment, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history,” explained Reyes. The values of freedom and liberty and the principle of service always ran deep with Reyes because of the experiences of his father’s and mother’s families.
“I learned early how important the law was in protecting people’s rights. Watching my father struggle with unscrupulous partners and competitors using the law as a sword, inspired me to want to protect him and others like him,” Reyes said. Growing up in California, Reyes would spend summers in Hawaii. He witnessed issues such as water rights and Hawaiian sovereignty that furthered his interest in law and he was fascinated by AP history, civics and government classes exposing him to constitutional and political issues in the law.
After graduating at the top of his class from BYU, law wasn’t his first career choice. “I contemplated teaching English. I loved literature, writing and teaching students,” Reyes said. But he was attracted by the nobility of law. At U.C. Berkeley Law School, he balanced studies, playing collegiate volleyball and fighting in mixed martial arts tournaments. He spurned more prestigious judicial clerkships to work summers at Parsons Behle & Latimer, Utah’s largest private firm; in part because of its fine national reputation, and in large part to be in Utah when the girl for whom he was waiting, Saysha Fawson, returned from her LDS mission in Romania. His plan worked to perfection and the two were married while Reyes finished his law degree.
Defining a Career
Parsons Behle & Latimer provided Reyes with immediate work on large cases, including a $500 million construction defect case for Kennecott Utah Copper and a high-profile shooting case at the Triad Building in Salt Lake City. “They were so good to me at Parsons,” he said. “They taught me how to be an effective and ethical lawyer.” His success helped him establish a solid reputation as a resourceful attorney in many areas of law and garnered a slew of local and national awards, including an early AV Preeminent Rating, Utah Young Lawyer of the Year and recognition by the American Bar Association as the first ever National Outstanding Young Lawyer.
“I established myself as someone who would work the 80 or 90 hours a week if needed, but still be able to balance having a family. Parsons rewarded me with partnership and that led to working on national and international cases worth billions of dollars and managing large teams of lawyers,” he said. “During that time, I was called to be an LDS bishop and continued to serve as a small claims judge, on many boards, commissions, committees and anywhere else I felt I could contribute. All those experiences helped prepare me for what I’m doing now.”
Reyes took on many pro bono cases representing refugees, veterans and the elderly. He also mentored undergrad law students, spoke at prisons and served on dozens of nonprofit boards helping raise money for scholarships or fallen peace officers. “I loved bringing my legal skills and talents to help others,” Reyes said.
And later, the U.S. Congress appointed him to serve as a federal commissioner to advise Congress and the president on Latino issues and the creation of a national museum of American Latinos near the Capitol.
State of Affairs in Utah
“After 14 years, I took leave of my firm and served as general counsel for a local tech company and started evaluating a run for politics,” Reyes said. Although he originally had no intention of running for office, he was recruited by many in the legal and business community disillusioned by the Attorney General’s Office at the time. He lost in 2012. However, in 2013 when his predecessor resigned, Reyes again felt a burning desire to serve and was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert as the 21st attorney general and first minority to ever hold statewide office in Utah.
The issues Reyes had to address were numerous and pressing, including an historic same-sex marriage case that appeared headed to the Supreme Court, monumental cases regarding polygamy, immigration and charges against two predecessors in office.
Always looking out for others, Reyes turned his attention internally. “Morale was the lowest I had ever seen of any organization,” Reyes said. “Many felt like neglected or abused children. For years there were no raises, resources, support, vision or leadership to help them be their best. The majority of those in our office are dedicated public servants who just want to make a positive difference.”
Inspired by his team daily, Reyes has worked to get his people the resources they need to focus on producing excellent legal work. In just under a year, Reyes has reenergized his lawyers and created an environment in which decisions are based on merit and the law, not on cronyism, political expediency or special interests. He has turned an office racked with scandal and fatigue into a positive workplace lauded by state agencies (his clients), as well as judges, lawyers, business leaders and citizens statewide. Many see his talents fit for the national stage and view him as a future governor or senator candidate. Reyes humbly downplays such talk, saying, “My focus right now is trying to be the best attorney general for the state of Utah. Period.”
Among many notable accomplishments over the past nine months, Reyes’ teams have led the largest synthetic marijuana and human trafficking busts in Utah history and played a key role in the largest Utah heroin bust. He has also created a new ethics committee, public corruption investigation team and white-collar fraud section as he focuses on regaining public trust and protecting consumers and businesses. His seemingly limitless energy and work ethic are becoming legendary around the capitol; though his penchant for texting and emailing between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. (his second workday) have made some uncomfortable. But a recent incident in which he saved a fallen flag from desecration during a public ceremony cemented his reputation as a Boy Scout on the Hill.
As busy as he is with matters of the state, Reyes is devoted to his bustling household. “I have six kids. I coach them in football, volleyball, basketball, baseball and soccer – luckily, not all at once. I have an amazing and incredibly bright and supportive wife. She is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Reyes said.
Although he admits to not really having any down time, it’s still about quality time. “Any little bit of extra time, I try to spend with my family,” he said. “They are my top priority. I will cook with them, help with homework, throw a ball or tuck them in. That is my fun time.” As a self-avowed ESPN junkie, he also loves to watch sports whenever he gets the chance. As he skillfully divides his time, he is gearing up for the next attorney general election in November.
“I’m working hard to continue to have the privilege to serve. But the best campaign message is doing my job well. I want the Office of the Attorney General to be known as the top law firm in the state, bar none. One the people can trust and be proud of; one that continues to make a difference in bettering the lives of Utah citizens.”