Marriane Wesson never planned to be a lawyer, let alone a professor of law. And then almost by accident she became both.
Professor Wesson, known as Mimi to her friends, compares her career path to a song by the Dixie Chicks about taking the long way around and not doing things like anybody else.
“I always seem to find my own way," said Wesson, "even if it's a long winding way that I wouldn't really recommend to anyone else. I'm sort of an anti-rolemodel that way. But no regrets."
Wesson is the Wolf-Nichol Fellow at Colorado Law at CU-Boulder. Her teaching has garnered numerous awards, including the law school's Teaching Excellence Award three times and being named a President’s Teaching Scholar, a top honor at the university for teaching excellence.
She is known for her contributions to the debate about pornography in feminism and law, and has written on the death penalty and sexual assault. Her teaching interests include criminal law, evidence, trial practice, and law and literature.
In the late 1960s as the Vietnam War dragged on and divided the nation, Wesson was drawn into the anti-war movement while she was attending Vassar College studying mathematics. Through her involvement with the movement, Wesson met lawyers who were working on anti-war cases. In the process, she found her calling.
“The lawyers were so interesting,” she said, “and they seemed to have a clear path to perfect justice through their profession. I was drawn to the intrinsic interest of law and to the possibility that it could be a way for me to be an agent of justice, so I went to law school.”
In 1976, while serving as assistant attorney general for the state of Texas, Wesson was invited to interview for a teaching position at CU-Boulder’s law school. There were no female faculty members at the time--those who taught before her had left. She is currently the senior woman faculty member and has taught there longer than any other woman.
“It was really almost accidental,” she said about getting the position, “but a very happy accident because it’s been a wonderful profession for me all these years. It could never happen that way today. Competition for law teaching positions is just ferocious.”
In 1980, Wesson took a leave of absence to serve for two years as a federal prosecutor in the Office of the United States Attorney in Denver. During those years she tried numerous federal criminal cases, ranging from kidnapping and firearms to extortion and white-collar crimes. In the mid-1980s she co-represented the plaintiff in Simmons v. Simmons, the first case in Colorado—and one of the first in the United States—to recognize a woman’s right to sue her husband for abusive injuries he inflicted on her during their marriage.
In 1991, Wesson was appointed by the California Supreme Court to represent a death row inmate. The case is now in the final opportunity to challenge the conviction and sentence.
An author of law books, reviews and academic articles, Wesson has also written three novels. They feature a female protagonist who practices law in Boulder and who becomes embroiled in legal issues that have interested Wesson as a scholar.
"I found I could write about the topics that interested me in novels," she said, "and that the result was not only more interesting, but more satisfying intellectually than law review articles."
Her first creative nonfiction book, published in 2013, is based on a case about the unknown identity of a man killed in 19th century Kansas, which generated two exhumations, six trials and a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wesson is planning to retire at the end of this semester after 37 years of teaching law.
“My students are so inspiring,” said Wesson. “It’s quite challenging starting a career as a lawyer now and they’re so full of hope and energy and curiosity. I'm still committed, up to the last day I teach, to bringing everything I have to class and living up to what they have a right to expect.”
She may be retiring from teaching, but Wesson has plenty of activities to look forward to.
Calling herself a bit of an eccentric, Wesson lives with her husband on a ranch in Larimer County, where they raise llamas and plan to start beekeeping in the spring. She also wants to learn to play the dulcimer and finish another novel she’s writing.
And she will no doubt be spending quality time with “The Boyfriend,” the name she gave her black and chrome Harley-Davidson Custom Sportster.
“Riding my motorcycle makes me feel wild and free,” she said. “Happiness is the perfect mix of challenge, exertion and rest. I hope I’m not done growing.”