Mary Mullarkey, the first woman to serve as Colorado Supreme Court chief justice, has died at 77

Mary Mullarkey, the first woman to serve as Colorado Supreme Court chief justice, has died at 77

Colorado’s first female Supreme Court chief justice, who spent 23 years on the state’s highest court and 12 years as its chief, died Wednesday morning after living for years with multiple sclerosis — a disease that never slowed her work.

Mary Mullarkey leaves a huge legacy within Colorado’s judicial system, former colleagues said. She led a cultural shift within the judicial branch that opened more doors for women and minorities within the state’s court system and improved the way everyday citizens involved in the courts were treated. During her tenure, she pushed the state to build the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center that now sits at 2 E. 14th Ave., across from the state Capitol.

She was 77.

“She had a brilliant mind. She was a great writer. She was very dedicated to the system and to the law,” retired Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Bender said. “I thought she was a gift to the system and to the court. It’s a sad day in Colorado.”

Mullarkey was an early role model for women in Colorado’s legal circles.

“Chief Justice Mullarkey was an inspiration to countless women who admired her tenacity in overcoming barriers in the legal profession,” Justice Monica M. Márquez said. “Hearing her stories about being one of just a few women in her class at the Harvard Law School, for example, was a reminder of how hard she and other pioneers worked to blaze a trail for other women in the law. She was a powerful early advocate for diversity in the legal profession, including our courts, and her hard work forged a lasting legacy in Colorado.”

Mullarkey was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1987 by then-Gov. Roy Romer and was selected by her peers to serve as chief justice in 1998. She was the longest-serving chief justice in state history when she retired in 2010.

Mullarkey was born and raised in New London, Wisconsin. She studied mathematics and graduated with honors from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, in 1965. She earned her law degree from Harvard University in 1968 and then went to work as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Interior in its equal employment opportunity section.

In Washington, she met Tom Korson, who would become her husband of 49 years. The young couple decided to move to Denver in 1973 for what Korson said was to be “a two-year adventure.” But they fell in love with Colorado and never left, he said. He once told The Denver Post, “I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life. One of them is being married to Mary Mullarkey.”

Before her appointment to the Colorado Supreme Court, Mullarkey specialized in appellate practice, heading the appellate section in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and later serving as Colorado’s solicitor general. She also served as legal counsel for Gov. Richard Lamm and ran her own law firm.

When Mullarkey was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court, the justices held court in an outdated building where buckets were positioned around the court of appeals to catch leaking rainwater. It was her idea to ask the legislature for a new building, Bender said.

Mullarkey spent years convincing the governor, state legislature and her fellow judges that a new building was needed and the state should pay for it, retired Colorado Supreme Court Justice Alex Martinez said. The effort involved countless meetings, hearings and phone calls, he said.

“I don’t know how she did all that and maintained her judicial work,” Martinez said.

Along the way, some conservative legislators were hesitant to fund the complex out of concern that Mullarkey, who critics thought was too liberal, would name the building after herself, Martinez said.

“That’s not what she was about,” he said. “She was interested in accomplishing something, not her own ego.”

It was Mullarkey’s idea to name the judicial complex after former Gov. Ralph Carr, who opposed Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II. Carr was a Republican, and his view — in the minority among politicians at the time — would cost him re-election. Mullarkey knew Carr was a Colorado political figure that liberals and conservatives would support.

“It was masterful,” Martinez said. “And that was all Mary.”

Mullarkey always worked to move the system forward to serve the public, Bender and Martinez said. She was instrumental in making sure professional interpreters, who spoke dozens of languages, were available in Colorado’s courtrooms, and she led an effort to provide childcare in courthouses for parents who were tied up in the legal system.

Her support for child care in courthouses brought a cultural shift to Colorado’s judicial buildings, forcing judges to accept it as a function of the courts, Martinez said.

Mullarkey authored hundreds of opinions during her 23 years on the court. One that is among the most notable was her 2002 opinion that descendants of Mexican homesteaders in the San Luis Valley should have access to the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch for grazing and harvesting timber and firewood. The decades-old legal fight concluded in 2018 when the landowner said he would end his efforts to restrict access.

“It was a very special victory for the people in one of the two poorest counties in the state,” Martinez said of Mullarkey’s opinion.

Mullarkey managed all of the work while living with multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system.

“There must have been many times when she was not just in discomfort but in pain. Yet you wouldn’t know that from her very kind compassionate demeanor,” Martinez said. “That more than anything else served as an inspiration for so many of us.”

In her later years on the bench, Mullarkey navigated the courtroom with a walker, and Martinez said he and others in the courtroom would hover to make sure she didn’t fall, something that Mullarkey resisted.

“We were ready to spring,” he said. “She was both appreciative but also not really wanting that attention or that help. She was kind in sort of pushing you away.”

In 2005, Mullarkey received the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s MS Achievement Award for her advocacy for better treatment. She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012.

Mullarkey is survived by Korson, their son, Dr. Andrew Korson, daughter-in-law, Emily Korson, and two granddaughters. A mass of Christian burial will be held later at Cure d’Ars Catholic Church in Denver.

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