University of Colorado Law School Professor Melissa Hart was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court on December 14, 2017, and took the bench for the first time to hear oral arguments on January 9, 2018. In addition to her distinguished work teaching students, Hart led the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law for eight years. She is an expert in employment discrimination, access to justice, and constitutional law.
We sat down with Justice Hart to hear her reflections on her first few months on the bench.
Where were you when you received the news that you were appointed the next justice of the Colorado Supreme Court?
I was at my son’s school, where I had just dropped him off for the day. The governor called me and said he had “three follow-up questions.” We talked for about 45 (very stressful and uncertain) minutes, at the end of which he said, “Well, you are my pick.” I ran right into the school gym, where my son was playing basketball, and he gave me the hugest hug.
Who are your judicial role models?
My strongest role model, as a judge, a lawyer, and a human being, is Justice John Paul Stevens, with whom I clerked in 1996–97.
What are the top five books that have most influenced you and your career?
I don’t think I can identify THE top five, but here are five books that have influenced me significantly:
- Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
- Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963
- William Fisher et al., American Legal Realism
- Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law
- Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire
You have dedicated your career to improving access to justice. How will you continue to address access to justice from the Colorado Supreme Court?
I will serve as the court’s liaison to access-to-justice efforts around the state and will remain a member of the Colorado Access to Justice Commission (ATJC). A coalition of stakeholders, including the ATJC, the court, and the Colorado Bar Association, has received a grant from the National Center for State Courts to implement pilot projects in two judicial districts—one rural and one more urban—focused on filling gaps in access to justice efforts. I will be working with other project managers on that effort, with the hope that we will be able to take lessons from those pilot projects into other districts around the state in the coming years. I am also very excited to be the court’s representative on an organizing committee for a new affordable law practice incubator that Colorado Law is supporting and that we hope to launch in 2019. Helping lawyers learn how to run their practices so that they can charge rates that real people can afford to pay is an essential piece of addressing the justice gap.
Can you describe a defining moment or experience that has stuck with you from your first several months on the court?
There have been so many! I imagine people would expect me to select an experience on the bench or in the drafting of an opinion, but I think I’d like to focus instead on an experience I recently had as part of the administrative work of the court. The associate justices are responsible for serving as ex officio chairs for the nominating commissions that select district and county court judges. The first nominating commission I chaired was for a vacancy on the 12th Judicial District in Alamosa. I went down to the San Luis Valley the day before and had the opportunity to meet members of the bar association there. I was so impressed with the attorneys I met—many of whom were Colorado Law alumni. I was especially pleased to see that the public defenders and district attorneys were very collegial. The visit was a wonderful reminder that there are great legal communities all over the state, and not just on the Front Range.