Colorado Supreme Court
Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
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New Chief Justice is Chief Educator
Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice sees one of her biggest roles as educating the public about the rule of law.
By JAMES CARLSON
There is a theory of good legal advocacy that sees the attorney as a storyteller. But if you were to take a class taught by Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice, you’d hear a different concept of lawyering.
“She’d say to us, ‘You’re educators first,’” said Laura McNabb, a former student of Rice’s at the University of Colorado Law School and now her law clerk. “‘If anything you’re saying isn’t going to help educate the judge and educate the jury, then don’t say it.’”
Rice has lived that concept in her time in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, during her tenure on the Denver District Court and in her 15 years on the Supreme Court. Now, after she was sworn in earlier this month as the state’s 45th chief justice, she will expand her belief in educating while adjudicating.
Rice will continue initiatives begun by her predecessor, Chief Justice Michael Bender, and will push the court system to be more transparent in its processes. One of her biggest goals is to better educate the public about the role of the judiciary and the “near genius design” of America’s legal system.
“I think people understand the system around the edges,” Rice said. “I see a big part of my function is to make people think about it consciously.”
And she will do it, as always, with what she calls “that understated Wyoming personality.”
‘To my bones’
The Las Animas County Courthouse sweltered in the summer months of the late 1950s. The building had no air-conditioning then — it still doesn’t — so visitors often attended at the expense of their personal comfort.
To a young Nancy Rice, however, the soaring heat did little to temper her wonderment. The future Colorado Supreme Court justice, no more than 7 or 8 years old at the time, often tagged along with her grandfather when he served as bailiff at the courthouse in Trinidad, Colo. Rice put water on the tables, then sat in the soft theater-style gallery seats and took it all in. The light filtering through the stain-glass windows. The attorneys arguing for their clients. The judge directing the proceedings from the bench.
“There was nothing about it that didn’t excite me to my bones,” Rice said.
That initial flicker of interest never burned out.
After high school, she went east to Tufts University and then attended the University of Utah College of Law where she was one of 10 female students in a class of 100. “We were still interesting but not that interesting, so it was possible to get by on your merits.”
Rice was hired at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1977 where she started at the bottom. She worked dog-off-leash cases and camping-too-close-to-the-roadway cases. It could have been seen as menial work, but it also allowed her to “get a sense of what it is to be a prosecutor and what it is to prove a case.”
Her style was “very logical, very humble,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Kristen Mix, who interned under Rice in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the early 1980s. There’s a lot of sloppiness in trial lawyering, Mix said, a lot of harping on unimportant information. Rice, though, “she just had a knack for understanding what’s important and presenting it clearly. She wasn’t over the top. She never protested too much. She just presented the facts in a dispassionate and logical way so that you almost couldn’t help but agree with her.”
Rice credits this to her Western upbringing.
When Rice visited the courthouse from her childhood recently, she walked past a stone carved with “1912,” the date the structure was built. The courthouse’s roots go deep. So do Rice’s.
Her mother’s father was a Colorado homesteader. So was her father’s. Both of her parents attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, and after a brief stint in Texas, the family moved to Cheyenne, Wyo. Up there, “Things are what they are,” Rice said. “People don’t tend to be dramatic about everything. As a trial lawyer, people respond to that. It feels honest, it feels sincere.”
She believes that sensibility translated well to the Denver District Court where she was appointed in 1987. “It was easier to keep myself out of the fray, to listen and not react too quickly, to be thoughtful when other judges might have wanted to get more involved.”
After a decade on the bench, Rice was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1998 by Gov. Roy Romer. Even on the high court, Rice’s pragmatic approach is apparent, said McNabb. “If you watch her in oral arguments, her questions always seem to come back to the practical concerns.”
Justice as teacher
Jeremy Beck remembers Rice’s “even keel” temperament. Beck, also a law clerk for Rice, first met her when he took her motions advocacy class at the CU Law. “In the abstract, it can be intimidating because you’re before one of the seven justices. But it felt like a collaborative seminar. She was playful and low-key and constructive.”
McNabb remembers Rice’s direct approach to trial advocacy: light on the theatrics, heavy on the matter-of-fact presentation. “She didn’t like the fluff,” McNabb recalls.
For Rice, teaching is a respite from the sometimes insular life on the Supreme Court. “I like the students because they make me laugh, and they very quickly don’t take me seriously.”
In one class a few years ago, McNabb was doing a mock closing argument about stolen gloves and repeatedly referred to the gloves as “the gun” by accident. Rice chuckled a little, McNabb said. Then in a kind, almost deadpan tone, Rice said to McNabb, “I think that might have been a mistrial.”
‘You aren’t a good judge unless …”
That story wouldn’t surprise David Stark, who is chair of the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee. “She’s gentle and compassionate,” he said of Rice, “but she also has great take-charge skills.”
In addition to her role hearing cases, the chief justice also serves as administrator for all of the state’s courts. Rice said she will continue the Chief Justice Commission on the Legal Profession, set up by former Chief Justice Bender. Its four working groups are developing ideas to better address the needs of the legal profession and the community as a whole.
She also will travel the state talking to judicial districts and to non-attorney groups. The latter is particularly important, Rice said, because it addresses the issue of what the legal community calls “procedural fairness.” (Rice finds the name “off-putting” and said she might just label the issue “fairness.”) Its moniker aside, the concept is that whatever the outcome of a legal proceeding, the proceeding was administered fairly. Studies show that participants better accept a ruling, even if it goes against them, when they understand how that ruling was reached.
Rice knows from her time on the district court that dockets can pile up and that it’s easy for a judge to want to get straight to the decision and spend little time explaining the decision. That’s a mistake, she says. That educating skill isn’t peripheral to a judge’s role; it’s central.
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how right you are on the law,” she said. “You aren’t a good judge unless the people in your courtroom feel that you’re fair and that their voice was heard. It’s all about how people understand the decision.”
James Carlson is the Information Resources Coordinator for the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. If you have an idea for the OARC Update, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.