For Newest Justice, Sitting on a Bench Was ‘Never the Plan’
by Scott Challinor
Perhaps his connection to people is part of the "intangibles" Gov. John Hickenlooper referred to in appointing Boatright to the Supreme Court in October. Boatright was sworn in to the bench in November, and although "it was never part of the plan" to be a district court judge or a district attorney, let alone a Colorado Supreme Court Justice, his passion for people and the relationships he cultivated en route have brought him to his current position.
From the age of five, Boatright knew that he wanted to be an attorney. He attributes this to the influence of his hero: his father, Virgil Boatright, who still practices probate law with Boatright & Ripp in Jefferson County.
"I literally cannot ever think of any other career that I ever contemplated," Boatright said.
Although his father never pushed him into law, his influence and his conduct inspired Boatright from a young age to follow in his footsteps. Displaying a practical inclination, Boatright majored in accounting at Westminster College in Missouri. The degree appealed to him because it provided valuable background knowledge for the probate work his father did, while also providing a back-up plan for law school, he said.
"I chose to major in accounting because I wanted to ensure that if I decided not to go to law school, I would have an occupation," Boatright said.
Using his accounting degree, he spent a year conducting audits with the predecessor to Ernst & Young. However, staying true to his plan, Boatright began law school one year later at the University of Denver, from which he received his J.D. in 1988.
The seeds for his future career in the district attorney’s office were sown during law school. As a 2L, Boatright interned with First Judicial District Judge Michael Villano (his godfather), and as a 3L he worked for him full-time as a law clerk while attending classes at night.
"I just got glued to the courtroom and I got attracted to working for victims and trying to advocate for appropriate accountability," Boatright said.
It also was during this time that Boatright met Pete Weir, the assistant district attorney assigned to Villano’s division, who served as a strong role model for him.
"I kind of modeled myself after Pete; he was a really honorable guy and made it seem like a really great profession to get into," he said.
On finding these kinds of career-
Nevertheless, the pull of family remained strong, and on graduating law school, Boatright began working for his father. The plan, Boatright said, was always to "have an office two doors down from my dad."
When the D.A.’s office called roughly a year later, Boatright pursued his newfound passion for the courtroom. However, he still viewed the move as temporary—a way to get litigation experience, and then return to his father’s office.
Although Boatright said he never thought he was going to be a judge, as a young D.A. he saw the judges and thought "there’s really the potential to do some good things here."
He joined the First Judicial District bench in 1999, initially handling a diversified docket that covered everything from civil to criminal and probate to juvenile.
That kind of docket "keeps it interesting," he said. "It also prevents you from burning out on a specific topic."
Additionally, Boatright observed that diversified dockets impart a sense of ownership and accountability, because cases remain in a judge’s division until they are resolved. "The key is the teamwork," Boatright said, regarding the ability to always find coverage for double-booked trials.
However, Boatright noted that it is crucial to not allow one aspect of a diversified docket to overwhelm the others. For this reason, he sought a specialized docket devoted to juvenile cases. Boatright said it was the most rewarding and challenging docket he handled.
"To me, if you can try to help that situation, that was a great thing," he said. "The challenging part of it is … you can’t undo what has happened to a child ... no matter how much you cared, no matter how much you worked, things had already happened."
As the parent of a son and daughter, ages 14 and 11, Boatright applies the lessons he learned in his courtroom to his parenting.
"I would try to take that tragedy of the courtroom and take that to give me energy at home to get down on the ground and play Thomas the Tank Engine with my son when he was little, or to go on a bike ride when I was too tired to do that," he said.
When Boatright applied for the position on the Supreme Court’s bench, he knew he would bring a strong trial background and the ability to appreciate a decision’s ramifications at the trial level. Alluding to a specific case from his division, Boatright said its reversal in the appellate courts was a big factor in applying for the position.
"I realized that the decision was going to have both intended and unintended consequences for how these types of cases were going to be handled," he said.
As with Boatright’s other career achievements, he never had an expectation of making it to the Supreme Court. To illustrate, he recalls that while driving to the press conference announcing his appointment with his wife, he had the sudden realization: "I’m going to have to drive downtown every day!"
Speaking with Boatright, it is clear that he maintains a love and passion for the work he did as a district court judge. He cited the dynamism and the human element of the courtroom as things he will miss, as well as working with jurors.
"The biggest thing I realized as a district court judge was how good our jury system is," he said. "There’s something really marvelous about the combination of common sense and integrity that made the system work."
Nevertheless, he clearly relishes the challenges and opportunities of the Supreme Court, particularly the diversity of cases. Additionally, Boatright said he enjoys the camaraderie among the justices.
Boatright said he is still feeling out the differing role of trial judge, who in his opinion by-and-large should not interfere, and appellate judge, who can be very active in asking questions. He also noted his ability to set the tone: "As a trial court judge, you control the tenor of what the courtroom is like ... now I’m one of seven justices. I have very little impact on the tenor of the courtroom."
Asked about surprising aspects of the job, Boatright cited the large amount of thought and work that goes into producing the seemingly simple phrase "Petition for Writ of Certiorari DENIED."
"Every petition for certiorari is looked at by every justice ... they are really scrutinized very closely," he said.
In handling the transition to his new position, Boatright draws from the lessons he learned as a young D.A. "You do what you can to prepare," he said. "You don’t say: ‘I don’t know this, so I haven’t read anything, so tell me.’ You read as much as you can and you get prepared." However, checking one’s ego also is crucial: "The key to being a good judge is to know what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to acknowledge that," he added. "I think you have to rely on the lawyers to be experts in that area, to educate you."
When asked for advice for new lawyers in light of his career in public service, Boatright said it is important to "follow the voice in your head."
"For me, it’s about wanting to have the right feeling when you go to bed, when you talk with your kids," he said. "You’ve got to want to get up and go to work every day." Although he added, smiling "I’ve never made a ton of money, so maybe there is a lot of satisfaction in that." D
Scott Challinor is an attorney with Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP who specializes in ERISA and tax law.