State Chief Justice Mullarkey, 66, will retire
Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey will retire from the Colorado Supreme Court effective Nov. 30.
That announcement Thursday came as no surprise to some, in part, because Mullarkey’s health has been failing in recent years.
The 66-year-old chief justice was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994. Since then, her ability to walk has become increasingly difficult, Mullarkey said.
“I am very fortunate that I’ve never had the eye problems, which are pretty common with MS, or the cognitive problems,” said Mullarkey, who always would be seen getting around with the aid of a walker. “So, it has not impacted my ability to do this job. I always joke that it’s not a heavy-lifting job. It’s all mental heavy lifting.”
Mullarkey’s replacement will come by September. That’s when the 15-member Supreme Court Nominating Commission will forward three recommendations to Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat.
Unlike the federal system that allows the president to name anyone to the U.S. Supreme Court, the governor only can choose from the three and doesn’t have the power to name a chief justice. That will be decided by the justices themselves after the new justice takes the bench on Dec. 1, said Rob McCallum, spokesman for the Judicial Branch.
Governors do, however, get to appoint members of the commission. Since Ritter took office in January 2007, he has appointed all but five, who are holdovers from Gov. Bill Owen’s administration.
As a result, the commission’s current makeup is seven Democrats, five Republicans and three unaffiliated members. By law, seven of those members must be attorneys, two must be from each of the state’s seven congressional districts and one is chosen at-large.
Club 20 President Reeves Brown said he wouldn’t comment on Mullarkey’s work on the high court, but he did call on Ritter to appoint someone from the Western Slope who would bring political balance to it.
Of the six still on the bench, four were appointed by former Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat. Owens, a Republican, appointed two during his eight years in office.
None of the justices hail from the Western Slope.
“It would be appropriate to look on this side of the Continental Divide for representation on the bench since half the state is over here,” Brown said. “The governor should try in this appointment to achieve a greater political balance on the bench as well as geographic balance.”
Mullarkey has earned much criticism during the past year, particularly over a series of court opinions that Republican critics say were designed to weaken the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the tax-limiting constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1992.
Those court opinions include a decision that allowed the state to issue certificates-of-participation notes, saying they are not debt requiring voter approval under TABOR.
Most recently, Mullarkey was criticized for an opinion siding with Ritter over a law that prevented property tax mill levies from decreasing in school districts.
Ritter enacted that new law to prevent the state from having to annually increase its share of K-12 funding while local school districts steadily decreased their share.
Mesa County was a lead plaintiff in that case.
Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said he has known Mullarkey for years and thinks highly of her, but he won’t miss her legal opinions.
“I’m sorry to see her go on some levels, but she has not been a very pro-law-enforcement chief justice,” he said.
“Professionally, I think it’s probably a good thing for public safety.”
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams said her departure will be good for the state in general.
“She not only drove the court to a far liberal position, but she also was rather creative in twisting the law to get her desired ends,” Wadhams said. “While I respect her, I think it’s good for the state of Colorado she’s leaving the court.”
Mullarkey scoffed at those criticisms, saying she’s been involved in more than 350 opinions that, by definition, pick winners and losers.
“We usually make half the people angry at any given time,” she said.