Mary Mullarkey (1943–2021) was a Colorado lawyer and public servant whose career was marked by firsts. She was the first woman to serve as Colorado solicitor general, the first to serve as chief legal counsel to a Colorado governor, and the first to become chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. Mullarkey was first appointed to a seat on Colorado’s Supreme Court in 1987. In 1998 her peers elected her as Colorado’s first female chief justice, a position she held until her retirement in 2010. Throughout her tenure as chief justice, Mullarkey had multiple sclerosis (MS). In her later years on the court, she used accommodations to walk and write.
As chief justice, Mullarkey almost singlehandedly turned the Colorado court system into one of the country's most technologically advanced court systems. She also advocated for greater diversity and inclusion in Colorado’s legal profession. She believed courthouses should be places of pride for their communities and ensured that courts would have safe places for children whose parents had court proceedings. She was the driving force behind a new state judicial building, the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, which opened in Denver in 2013.
Mary Jane Mullarkey was born on September 28, 1943, in New London, Wisconsin, to John Clifford Mullarkey and Isabelle Steffes Mullarkey. Neither of her parents attended college. Mary was the fourth of five children and the only girl. Her mother had been a legal secretary and court reporter, so Mary grew up hearing stories about the law. At Washington High School in New London, Mullarkey participated in debate, developing skills she later relied on during her years as a lawyer. She met John F. Kennedy when he spoke at her high school in 1960, before he became president, and later was deeply moved by his call to public service. Mary attended St. Norbert College, a Catholic liberal arts college in De Pere, Wisconsin, graduating in 1965 with a degree in mathematics.
Mullarkey believed that a career in law would be the best way to answer the call to public service. She attended Harvard Law School, obtaining her JD in 1968. In her class of 535 students, she was one of twenty-two women. At the time, many professors did not believe that women should be admitted to law schools, and a few would call on women in class only one day a year. The questions asked on “Ladies Day” were intended to show that they did not take women seriously as students.
Early Law Career
After law school, Mullarkey moved to Washington, DC, where she worked as an attorney with the Department of the Interior. Initially, she specialized in water and power law before becoming the one attorney in the department working on equal employment law under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During that time, she met fellow lawyer Thomas E. Korson. They were married on July 24, 1971, at St. Patrick’s Church in Lebanon Township, Wisconsin, by Mary’s brother, Father Jack Mullarkey.
In 1973 Mary and Tom moved to Denver. The couple intended to stay only for two years after Mary’s expertise in discrimination cases landed her a job at the state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They fell in love with the state, however, and never left. Their son Andrew Steffes Mullarkey was born in Denver in 1981. Mary became a parishioner at Cure d’Ars Catholic Church, a predominantly African American parish in North Park Hill.
After her brief time at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Mullarkey oversaw appeals at the Office of the Attorney General under J. D. MacFarlane. In 1975 she became the first woman to serve as Colorado solicitor general. During her seven years as solicitor general, she was the lead counsel for the state in major appellate cases. In 1982 Colorado governor Richard Lamm recruited Mullarkey as his chief legal advisor. It was another first—before then, no woman had served as chief legal advisor to the governor.
Colorado Supreme Court
After Lamm left office at the start of 1987, Mullarkey looked for a new job that would allow her to effect change and challenge her intellectually. She applied for a vacant seat on the Colorado Supreme Court and was appointed to the position by Governor Roy Romer on June 29, 1987. She was only the second woman to serve on the Colorado Supreme Court after Jean Dubofsky (1979–1987). In 1998 Mullarkey was recognized by her fellow justices—all men—for her diligence, fairness, and attentiveness when they elected her chief justice, a position she held until her retirement in 2010. She was the longest-serving chief justice in Colorado history.
In Mullarkey’s twenty-three-year tenure on the court, she heard more than 30,000 cases and wrote 472 opinions. One critical case, Lobato v. Taylor (2002), had to do with land access rights on the former Sangre de Cristo land grant in the San Luis Valley. The rights of Hispano homesteaders to graze animals, gather firewood, and harvest timber had existed for more than a century, since before Colorado statehood, but were denied when a new owner bought the land in the 1960s. Mullarkey wrote the majority opinion that secured these rights to descendants of the 1850s Hispano homesteaders.
In 2003 Mullarkey wrote the majority opinion that threw out a Republican-drawn map of new congressional districts. The ruling preserved Colorado’s competitive redistricting system by holding that the legislature had unconstitutionally overridden a map drawn by the court.
Judicial Expansion and Modernization
Mullarkey designated her first year as chief justice as the year of customer service. Her goal was to improve the way everyone in the judicial branch interacted with the court, their colleagues, and the public. Noted for her compassion, Mullarkey prioritized cases of child abuse and neglect, raising these cases above others to reduce the time children had to spend in the court system.
In her time on the Colorado Supreme Court, Mullarkey witnessed the state’s population increase from about 3.3 million in 1987 to more than 5 million by 2010. She lobbied the state legislature to expand the judicial system so courts could keep up with their caseloads. Mullarkey was successful: the number of judges increased by 27 percent during her time as chief justice, and Colorado became a national leader in the use of information technology in courts. She increased access by ensuring diverse language interpreters were available in Colorado’s courtrooms. In addition, she instituted a rule that all court buildings must provide safe places for children while their parents had court appearances. This led to a cultural shift, as judges began to accept the need to provide childcare as a function of the courts.
Mullarkey was also largely responsible for the state’s Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center (2013). When Mullarkey began work at the Supreme Court, its home at the decade-old Colorado Judicial Center was in disrepair. Justices held court in rooms where buckets were positioned to catch leaking rainwater. She spent years trying to convince the governor and state legislature that a new building was needed, then created a funding source through filing fees once the building was proposed in the early 2000s. In 2010 the Colorado Judicial Center and neighboring Colorado History Museum were demolished to make way for the new building.
One of Mullarkey’s greatest accomplishments, the Carr Judicial Center occupies an entire block at West Fourteenth Avenue and Broadway in Denver. It is a prominent addition to Civic Center near the Colorado State Capitol. It was Mullarkey’s idea to name the building for former Colorado governor Ralph Carr, who opposed Japanese internment camps during World War II. She knew Carr was the rare political figure both liberals and conservatives could support. Designed to bring Denver-area state judicial offices under one roof, the Carr Judicial Center is now home to the Colorado Supreme Court, the Colorado Court of Appeals, the Colorado Supreme Court Library, several judicial and legal agencies (such as the Office of the Attorney General and the Colorado State Public Defender), and the Colorado Judicial Learning Center, a museum-like space of interactive exhibits.
Living with Multiple Sclerosis
Mullarkey was serving on the Supreme Court when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1994. The disease attacks the protective sheath of the nervous system and can cause permanent damage to the nerves, leading to difficulty breathing, limited mobility, and paralysis. In 2005 she was honored with the Multiple Sclerosis Achievement Award for her advocacy for better treatment of the disease. In her later years, the disease slowed her body, not her workload. She relied on a walker in the courtroom and used a dictation program rather than writing or typing. When her feet no longer worked, she got hand controls for her car so she could still drive. She maintained that she would retire if the disease negatively affected her mind, but she remained sharp through the end of her life. Over time, however, the illness forced her to give up many activities she loved, from skiing to gardening to playing the piano. When she retired from the court in 2010, at age sixty-seven, she was the longest-serving chief justice in Colorado history.
Awards and Legacy
In 2003 Mullarkey received the Judicial Excellence Award from the Denver Bar Association. In 2010 she was awarded the American Judicature Society’s top honor, the Herbert Haley Award, given to individuals who make outstanding contributions that substantially improve the administration of justice in their state. In 2012 Mullarkey was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2017 she was again honored, this time by the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Inn of Court, a voluntary association of legal professionals that promotes continuous learning. The Sotomayor Inn’s members unanimously voted to name one of their groups the Justice Mary Mullarkey Pupilage.
Mullarkey died on March 31, 2021, of complications from pneumonia and end-stage multiple sclerosis. Her ashes are interred at the columbarium at Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church. She left the state with a flourishing court system where inclusion and diversity had become the norm.