The distinguished career of Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats developed from an ability to self-reflect, an important attribute for judges and attorneys alike.
Now the head of the Colorado Supreme Court, Coats began his law career with a hunch. “I thought I might be interested in law partly because there were so many things you could do with a law degree,” he said. He chose the University of Colorado for his undergraduate degree and law school because he had visited his father’s family in Sterling, Colorado, many times in his youth.
“I only applied to the University of Colorado,” he said. “I knew this was where I wanted to be. I actually did one semester of law school and then joined the Army for a few years, but I knew I wanted to come back to law school.”
After returning from his military service and enrolling at Colorado Law, Coats discovered his calling almost immediately. “I became interested in appellate court during my 1L year,” he said. “I enjoyed the in-depth analysis and arguments of the appellate forum.”
Following his instinct yet again, Coats decided to specialize in appellate work. He began working in the appellate section of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and eventually served as chief appellate deputy district attorney for the Second Judicial District.
His career took a turn after he argued the well-known Colorado v. Connelly in front of the United States Supreme Court, a case with which both lawyers and law students are likely familiar. For those who don’t recall, the case involved whether Miranda rights given during a schizophrenic episode rendered an individual incompetent, such that his subsequent murder confession had to be suppressed. Holding that there was no coercive police activity to nullify the voluntariness of the confession, the Court found no due process violation. An article about the case written by a former professor and friend from Colorado Law, William “Bill” Pizzi, led to an interview on 60 Minutes. “Connelly became a very high-profile case and greatly affected my practice after that,” Coats said.
Besides giving Connelly national recognition, Pizzi played an important role in the chief justice’s life. “Bill Pizzi was one of my professors, and I became friends with him while I was in school. He even asked me if I would be interested in teaching his course one year in the 90s when he went on sabbatical,” he said.
After many years serving as chief appellate deputy district attorney, Coats knew it was time for a switch. “I developed a facility for problem solving. The next step was to switch sides of the bench,” he said. In 2000, he was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Besides his time spent in the courtroom, Coats fondly remembers advising young trial attorneys. “Trial lawyers are witty, interesting people and things move so fast.”
The advice he gave the trial attorneys remains true for aspiring attorneys today. “The legal community in Colorado, especially at the appellate level, is small,” he said. “Your reputation and the way you behave towards others follows you everywhere.”
What advice does he have for aspiring justices? “Have white hair,” he joked. On a more serious note he added, “A judge needs be to have a willingness to reflect and to constantly examine oneself.”
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
Having just received an early separation from the Army to return to law school, all of my memories at Colorado Law are fond!
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
I sometimes wish I had a better idea when I was in law school what I wanted to do when I got out, but I am still not quite sure about that one.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
As long as it will allow you to keep body and soul together, use your legal training to do whatever you personally find to be the most meaningful.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
My wife, who as a young prosecutor herself, taught me how to talk to lawyers in the heat of trial.
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
I am not sure it qualifies as an accomplishment, but advising and assisting trial deputies for 15 years in the Denver District Attorney’s Office is the aspect of my career in which I take the most pride.