Mary Mullarkey, Colorado’s pioneering chief justice for 12 years, died March 31 at age 77. The Wisconsin native was a public lawyer and judge throughout her career. Respected by her colleagues for her powerful intellect and unwavering integrity, Mullarkey was also revered as the “chief” by legions of admiring law clerks, lawyers and judges.
Before her appointment to the state Supreme Court as the state’s second female justice in 1987, Mullarkey had served as counsel to Gov. Richard Lamm, in the attorney general’s office and as a staff lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Interior. She became the first woman chief justice in Colorado history when Gov. Roy Romer appointed her to the center seat in 1998.
Born in New London, Wisconsin, on Sept. 28, 1943, as the fourth of five children, and the only daughter, of an auto mechanic-entrepreneur father and a legal secretary and court reporter who later became a stay-home mother, Mullarkey grew up in a family that valued education. “Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, but they were great believers in the value of education and made sure that all five children received our college degrees,” Mullarkey wrote in 2012.
After graduating from St. Norbert College near Green Bay in 1965, Mullarkey pursued her law degree at Harvard with the encouragement of her mother, who had been accepted to law school at the University of Wisconsin but could not attend. According to a 2010 Denver Post column by Susan Greene, Harvard Law School’s admissions director was impressed by Mullarkey’s experience during summers as a cocktail server. “Anyone able to handle a bunch of drunks, he told her, could handle Harvard Law,” wrote Greene.
Once in Cambridge, Mullarkey found that she was one of the few women in the class of 1968. She told Inside MS magazine in 2006 that the experience was a “culture shock.” “There were very few women in law school then: 22 out of 530 in my class,” she said. “We were very conspicuous.”
“Harvard Law School, at the time she went, was of course lily white and male,” said Fiona Ong, a partner at Shawe Rosenthal in Baltimore who clerked for Mullarkey in 1992–1993. Mullarkey, she remarked, was “accosted by fellow students and even professors who told her that she was taking up a space that should have gone to a male.”
Trailblazing, Acclaimed Colorado Lawyer and Judge
Mullarkey’s odyssey to Colorado was also an unexpected turn in her life. Having had difficulty finding work as an attorney after graduating at the top of her Harvard class, Mullarkey eventually landed a position at the Department of Interior, where she focused on legal issues surrounding energy and water. During President Richard Nixon’s tenure in office, the EEOC began to enforce clauses in federal contracts that forbade employment discrimination. Mullarkey was offered a position in the agency’s Denver office. “It was exactly what I wanted to do,” she told Inside MS. “Going west was an adventure.”
Arriving in the state in 1973, Mullarkey enjoyed exploring the state’s mountains. She and her husband, Tom Corson, had married in July 1971 and thought they would stay in Colorado for “two years,” as Corson told the Denver Post. But the young lawyer met Jean Dubofsky, another future jurist and a fellow Harvard alumnus, and began in 1975 to work as the first assistant to Democratic attorney general J.D. MacFarlane. Her rise from there was quick. By 1979 she was the state’s top appellate lawyer.
By the 1980s, Mullarkey’s stellar reputation was such that Lamm decided he needed her on his staff. “She was so measured and thoughtful and objective,” he said. “She was a superstar.” Now 85, Lamm pointed to Mullarkey’s willingness to be sensitive to others and her team-oriented commitment as key features of her impact on the state. “She was self-effacing,” said the former governor, who served from 1975–1987. “She was not ruled by her ego at all, and she was very encouraging to have other people achieve their goals.” In 1985, after three years as the governor’s in-house lawyer, Mullarkey joined a colleague to form the law firm Mullarkey & Seymour.
Romer put Mullarkey on the court in 1987, something Lamm said he would have done, too, had an opportunity arisen. Once on the court, Mullarkey wrote hundreds of opinions, and among them was a 2003 opinion that prevented the General Assembly, then under Republican control, from redrawing the state’s Congressional districts for a second time during the decade, a 1998 ruling that forbade a school district from excluding from the high school band a student who objected to a mandatory drug test, and a 1991 decision upholding the right of pamphleteers to speak in a shopping mall. The prolific work accompanied Mullarkey’s diagnosis as a multiple sclerosis patient during the 1990s. In August 1998 she succeeded Anthony Vollack as chief justice.
High Court Colleagues Remember Landmark Opinions, Excellence, Collegiality
Michael Bender, Gregory Hobbs and Alex Martinez, former justices who each served with Mullarkey for more than a decade, said that among her most noteworthy opinions are those that corrected a longstanding miscarriage of justice to descendants of Coloradans whose ancestors had arrived long before statehood. Hobbs said decisions in three related cases decided between 2000–2003 assured that firewood, grazing, and the state’s oldest water rights would no longer be denied to beneficiaries of a million-acre 1844 land grant from the Mexican government located in Costilla County. The lengthy dispute, he said, involved termination of “the rights of access to firewood and to build their houses and grazing land,” he said. “I think [they] would stand out as the most important” of Mullarkey’s decisions.
As a judge, Mullarkey impressed her fellow jurists as a model of intellectual honesty and jurisprudential skill. “Among the best,” Hobbs said. “I hold her in the highest esteem among people of integrity and intellectual honesty.” Martinez said Mullarkey’s talents encompassed an inclusive approach to her colleagues. “I actually think her strength as a judge … is that she was sufficiently open-minded that, though she may have studied an issue and studied a problem, she was very much willing to listen to other people and take what they said and what they thought and hat they wrote about and take it seriously,” he said. “Mary never took herself that seriously,” Martinez continued. “She took the people around her seriously and she took the issues she was dealing with seriously. She was humble in her approach to things.”
Colorado judicial colleagues also spoke of Mullarkey’s record as an accomplished leader. Bender, Mullarkey’s successor as chief justice, pointed to her far-sighted effort to upgrade the judiciary’s record-keeping and e-filing systems as well as her work to champion construction of the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center. That project, undertaken in September 2010 just as the state was emerging from the worst national economic downturn since the Great Depression, is testament to Mullarkey’s creativity and patience, he said. “It was her idea,” Bender said. “The Ralph Carr building wouldn’t [exist] as a symbol of the rule of law in our state” without her leadership.
According to her Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame profile, she also spearheaded the launch of numerous judicial training programs and efforts to acknowledge the participation of jurors in the state’s justice system, successfully advocated for a rule that requires all court buildings in the state to have waiting rooms where children can safely remain while their parents are in a courtroom, and oversaw a 27 percent expansion in the size of the state judiciary. Mullarkey persuaded her colleagues to appoint the supreme court’s first public information officer and advocated a successful effort to assure the public of advance notices of court of appeals and supreme court opinions. She also led an overhaul of Colorado’s lawyer discipline system, a change that sped up the process and allowed for public scrutiny after a determination of probable cause. “Colorado’s attorney discipline system has become a national model,” she wrote in 2012.
Sister State Jurists, Mullarkey’s Mentees Remember the Chief
Ruth McGregor, a former Arizona chief justice who served as leader of that state’s judiciary during the time Mullarkey led Colorado’s judicial branch, said even fellow state chief justices held Mullarkey in high esteem. “We all respected her professionalism and intelligence but were equally drawn to her warmth and common sense,” she said. “All those who knew her will miss her.”
Rebecca Berch, another Grand Canyon State chief justice who served alongside McGregor, lauded her former colleague’s convivial temperament and wisdom. “Mary Mullarkey was assigned to be my mentor when I became Chief Justice in 2009 – just another example of her work to promote women in the judiciary, as well as generally,” Berch said. “Her counsel was wise and generously given. She never let on that a question was naive, and her (always commonsense) answer was always accompanied by good humor.”
Christine Durham, who served as Utah’s first woman chief justice during Mullarkey’s judicial service, lauded the late judge’s affability. “I enjoyed many years of service with Chief Justice Mullarky in the Conference of Chief Justices, working on shared goals for the state courts of this country,” the Bee State jurist said. “Mary was a wonderful colleague: brilliant, tenacious, bold and funny. She will be missed. “
Among her former clerks, Mullarkey was seen as thoughtful, helpful and as having a personal touch. Polly Jessen, a 1994-1995 clerk who is now a partner at Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, connected with Mullarkey over similar small town family histories. “I’m a ranch girl from Wyoming and I’m a Columbia law grad,” Jessen said. “I was coming back home to Denver, and one of the things I really enjoyed about working with the judge, not only was she a really remarkable woman but she came from a small town. There [were] a lot of aspects of her background that really resonated with me. She was a very plain-spoken, incisive, to the point, kind, practical and very unpretentious person.”
Neel Chatterjee, a partner at the Silicon Valley law firm Goodwin who was also a Mullarkey clerk in 1994-1995, said that the late chief’s capabilities as a legal captain were obvious to him. “I wasn’t a spectacular law student,” he said. “There were many reasons not to hire me.” Nevertheless, Chatterjee recalls that when the judge brought him onto her staff, she said she thought he would “be an interesting person to get to know” and “have interesting things to say.”
Matt Linton, an associate general counsel at Lockheed Martin Space who was a Mullarkey clerk in 2006-2007, said he learned a great deal from Mullarkey during conversations as he drove her to work. Mullarkey and Linton, he said, would discuss “everything in life,” including philosophy or “something simple, like a baseball game.” “She would set standards and really provide lessons without effort.”
Linton also pointed to Mullarkey’s clear priority of making sure litigants felt heard by the courts. “One of her goals was to ensure that when parties came to the court they understood they would be treated in a way that was truly fair,” he said. “She was not results-oriented whatsoever. What she was, was focused on a process that could, as best as possible, ensure that those kinds of human factors one might hold” would not unduly influence the outcome.
Annie Kao, the founder of Ascent Inclusion Consulting in Denver and a Mullarkey clerk in 2002-2003, said Mullarkey’s life continues to inspire her because of her commitment to “open doors for others. “She exemplified how to break barriers,” Kao said. Moreover, Mullarkey also exhibited a capacity for “calm agility,” asking her clerks “to have difficult debates” even on the “hardest legal issues.” “She gave meaning to the title ‘Chief Justice,’ Kao said. “My best tribute to her mentorship will be to do my best to pay it forward.” Ong also fondly remembered Mullarkey’s kindness, pointing to willingness to preside at her wedding.
Caleb Durling, a partner at Fox Rothschild and a 2007-2008 Mullarkey clerk, said his former boss’s battle with multiple sclerosis showed Mullarkey to also be uniquely strong. “She was a legal giant and the fact that she did all this stuff while battling physical challenges from having advanced MS for years sort of added to the awe I think we all had for her,” he said.
Chris Ford, a Mullarkey clerk during the year in which she was appointed chief justice, recalled connecting with the judge over family. He had recently become a parent at the time. “I felt a special connection with her about both of us having sons,” he said. “She would talk to me about what it was like to be a mother of a young man.” Ford also highlighted Mullarkey’s “warmth.” “She was interested in people and liked talking with people,” he said.
Eileen Kiernan-Johnson, a Boulder-based lawyer and two-time children’s book author who served both as Mullarkey’s clerk in 2001–2002 and as counsel to the chief justice for seven years, pointed to Mullarkey’s humanity as the source of her law clerks’ devotion and the respect she had among other jurists. “Not only did she have this incredible legal mind and [a career as a] trailblazing attorney and justice, but she was a very decent human being,” Kiernan-Johnson said. “She cared about the people she worked with. She cared about our children and our parents and what was happening professionally and personally with the people around her.”
For Jessica Volz, an author and spokesperson for Davis Graham & Stubbs who knew Mullarkey as a friend in her later years, the late chief justice’s health struggle should serve as a reminder that Mullarkey should be remembered as an exemplar of courage and compassion. “Nothing could stop her — not even multiple sclerosis — from shattering glass ceilings in the legal profession,” Volz said. “I feel grateful to have had her as a friend during her later years.”
Volz remarked that she hopes that lawyers who admired “the Chief” take to heart a principle that, to her, is one that Mullarkey would very much want to be remembered. “While she offered many pearls of wisdom, this was one of her most universal,” Volz said. “‘You need to take advantage of opportunities that open up.’ Find work that is meaningful and important.”
Mullarkey, who was a also a committed pianist, drew particular admiration for her intellection and artistic talents from Corson. Her husband spoke of his conjugality with Mullarkey of nearly 50 years as a prized personal treasure, telling the Denver Post in 2010 that he had “done a lot of interesting things in my life. One of them is being married to Mary Mullarkey.” Together with Mullarkey, Corson raised a son, Andrew, who grew up to become a physician.
Mullarkey is survived by Korson, Andrew Mullarkey, her daughter-in-law, Emily, and two grandchildren. The Denver Post reported April 1 that a funeral service is planned for an unspecified date at Denver’s Cure d’Ars Catholic Church.