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December 2013

Her Honor: Two Colorado Supreme Court Justices Speak on Women's Issues

We ask Colorado’s only two female Supreme Court chief justices to reflect on issues facing women today, historic changes to the law, and where we might be headed next.

What are some legal issues Colorado women face or faced during your time on the court? 

Nancy Rice: Incoming chief justice in 2014: Family issues, which aren’t necessarily women’s issues, but sometimes tend to have a bigger impact on women. And those family issues tend to be domestic violence, partner violence, spousal violence, division of parenting time, child support, and raising children.

Mary Mullarkey, 1998 to 2010: The biggest issues had to do with dissolution of marriage, particularly the division of property and allocation of parental rights. Improving the way divorces, which had started to explode, are handled was a big effort then.

How have the courts tried to address some of those issues?

NR: Colorado has set up in our courts ways for anyone—not just women—to get help, irrespective of whether they have a lawyer or not. We have self-represented litigant coordinators. So if you’re representing yourself, you can come in and get some help. 

MM: We created a position called case managers, who are lawyers who work for the courts. They meet with the parties and resolve whatever issues can be resolved, so by the time the case goes to a judge, it’s limited to issues that really can’t be agreed upon by the parties. 

What other changes have you seen?

NR: I graduated from law school in 1975, and at that time, there were not that many female lawyers. Out of a class of about 120, there were only 15 of us. Now I teach at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver law schools, and I can tell you it’s at least 50 percent female. That’s the most visible difference. In today’s Colorado Supreme Court, there are three women on the court out of the seven. And while it’s still a very big deal to be a chief justice or a justice, I don’t think it’s such a big deal to be a woman justice or a woman chief justice, and, frankly, that feels great to me. I don’t talk or think about it much. It doesn’t come up, and that’s the way it ought to be.

MM: If you look at the courts and where we are and where we should be, there are still not enough women judges. The Colorado Supreme Court looks pretty good, but there are not that many on the Court of Appeals, and there’s not a proportionate number on the district courts, either. Also the percentage of women as partners in law firms is not anywhere near where it ought to be. I think women have to keep pushing on those issues. If they want change, they’re going to have to make that happen.... In the future, I think there are going to be legal changes having to do with pay equity issues. The situation for women really hasn’t gotten a lot better in the past 20 years. The pay gap is still there. 

justices

Marsh v. University of Denver
Wage disparity may land a local law school in court.   

June marked the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which aimed to eliminate wage disparity based on sex. One month later, on July 9, 2013, longtime University of Denver law professor Lucy Marsh, 72, initiated a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), asserting the Sturm College of Law breached the terms of the Equal Pay Act by compensating her less than a man in a similar job. According to the filing, Marsh earns $109,000 and is the lowest-paid professor at Sturm, even though she has been a full-time professor there since ’82. (The median full-professor salary at the school is $149,000.) Documentation included in the filing also shows the median salary for female full-time professors at the college is $11,282 less than that of their male counterparts. At press time, the EEOC was waiting for salary information, potentially covering the past 30 years, from DU. “The EEOC said they are particularly interested in this case,” says Jonathan Boonin of Hutchinson Black and Cook, the firm representing Marsh, “because it combines two of President Obama’s priority issues: enforcing equal pay and investigating systemic violations.”

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