Chief Justice Mullarkey works to make the system as responsive and responsible as possible, and she is very concerned about the quality of justice delivered by the state’s courts.” — Justice Michael L. Bender
while slender in stature and soft-spoken, the supreme court chief justice is undeniably the most powerful person in the state’s legal system.
upreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey is the CEO of the Colorado Judicial Department. She is responsible for the overall administration of 22 judicial districts. To give you an idea of the scope of this job, court filings in Colorado’s trial courts for fiscal year 2008 numbered 291,465 criminal and 441,199 civil cases. On the appellate level, 1,657 cases were filed with the Supreme Court, which issued 147 opinions. More than 2,750 cases were filed with the Court of Appeals, which issued 1,981 published and unpublished opinions with an additional 773 cases dismissed. Mullarkey oversees 3,600 employees statewide — 304 of which are judges and justices appointed by the governor — and manages an annual budget of $350 million. From the time Mullarkey graduated from Harvard Law School to the present, she has devoted herself to a career in public service and faced some personal and professional challenges along the way. By kathy smith
Photographed at the colorado state supreme court
ven though Mullarkey’s parents never attended college, that wasn’t an option for their daughter. “It wasn’t a question of if you go; it was where and when,” she says. Mullarkey graduated with a math degree from St. Norbert College in her home state of Wisconsin with no idea of what she wanted to do. “At that time, the only careers for females were in nursing or teaching, and I knew I didn’t want to do that,” she says. Her mother, a legal secretary and court reporter, reviewed cases with such enthusiasm that Mullarkey credits her as the biggest inspiration for her focus on law. She decided to take the LSAT on a whim and had the highest score in the history of her college. Still unsure of her career path and wary of tuition costs, Mullarkey applied to some top law schools on the east coast. An acceptance offer brought her money worries to the forefront. “Harvard contacted me, offered me a spot, and I told them I was very honored, but I didn’t have the money to pay tuition,” she says. The administrators at Harvard made arrangements for loans and scholarships, and in 1965, she became one of 22 females in a law class of 535. “After law school, my real interest was in public service. I was motivated to get involved; this was during the JFK era and the civil rights movement,” she says. Her first job with the Bureau of Reclamation was at the entry level, but one early assignment was enforcing civil rights and nondiscrimination contracts. “I was new to the bureau when this assignment came up, and I was asked if I wanted to take it because no one else did. I always wanted to do something in public service that was interesting and socially worthwhile, and this was a great opportunity,” she says. In 1973, Mullarkey and her husband, Tom Korson, moved to Denver. She joined the newly opened Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office and was later appointed to lead the appellate section of the
state Attorney General’s office. “I love doing appellate work on different cases because I enjoy the research and writing,” she says. Mullarkey enjoyed a 19-year experience representing clients in the appellate court system, which proved to be a springboard to candidacy for one of the justice positions in 1987. “Governor Romer called me about 10:30 pm to tell me he was appointing me to the Supreme Court. Normally, I would have been fast asleep but Tom and I had been up watching L.A. Law. I was elated,” she says. It wasn’t a simple transition from appellate court lawyer to making decisions on the Supreme Court. “Like anyone who is appointed to a judgeship, I first had to learn the job of judging. It is not easy to make the transition from being an advocate for one side to being the neutral decision-maker who can fairly evaluate and weigh the merits of the arguments on both sides,” says Mullarkey. Midway through her term, Mullarkey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Even though she battles the disease daily, it doesn’t interrupt her career and life. “I typically get up at 4:45 am to exercise, play the piano and eat breakfast before going to work. That gives me enough time to scan the newspaper, listen to the news on NPR and think about what’s coming up during the day,” she says. According to justice Michael L. Bender, “I think Chief Justice Mullarkey shows enormous concern for the judicial system in many arenas. She works to make the system as responsive and responsible as possible, and she is very concerned about the quality of justice delivered by the state’s courts.” Being one of the first females on an all-male panel presented challenges as well. “It was difficult to be the only woman on that court — a status that lasted about seven years. I always say that my working life got a lot better when Becky Kourlis was appointed.” Currently there are three women and four men on the Colorado Supreme Court and unlike any other court, justices hear every case and make decisions as a group.
Mullarkey says, “There are no guides to that kind of decision-making. I had to learn the process by participating in it.” Fellow justices recognized Mullarkey’s diligence, fairness and attentiveness. In 1998, they selected her as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Colorado. Justice Alex J. Martinez says, “I greatly admire the chief for leading this court and the judicial branch by remaining positive, constructive and realistic, even in the most professionally and personally trying circumstances.” Challenges have never hindered Mullarkey’s life, and she tackles every challenge and opportunity alike: with a positive attitude. “The chief justice is diligent in recognizing the needs of the least protected. She is recognized as a national leader for bringing attention to family issues, child welfare and for implementing programs that make a positive difference,” says state court administrator Gerald Marroney. As part of her ongoing commitment to the community, Mullarkey and the other six justices, along with other members of the legal community, work to educate high school students on the rule of law and how a democratic judicial system works. The Justices and legal teams travel to high schools across the state twice a year. Actual cases — not mock trials — are selected and presented by the courts. Prior to their arrival, teachers sit down with attorneys to prepare a curriculum that follows the legal process. “Arguments are typically held in the morning, and then the Supreme Court Justices join the students to answer questions. It’s a very rewarding experience,” Mullarkey says. “I love the public part of my job. It is very satisfying to meet community leaders and work with the high school teachers and students.” Personally, Mullarkey is most proud of her relationships with her family and great friends. “I have no lofty goals,” she says, “and I see myself as someone who is open to opportunities.”