August 27, 2014

The Life and Times of Brian Boatright: An Interview with the Newest Colorado Supreme Court Justice

I have had the privilege of knowing the newest justice on the Colorado Supreme Court for over 17 years, since September of 1994, when I was hired as a deputy district attorney in Jefferson County.  Brian Boatright was a senior deputy then, prosecuting felony cases in district court.  One of the first memories I have of him was as an instructor of mine at “Baby DA School,” teaching evidence and procedure.  Even then, it was obvious to me that this was a really smart guy.  Scary smart.  In 2006, I joined him as a colleague on the First Judicial District bench.  I recently had the chance to sit down with Justice Boatright for an in-depth chat, something I wish I had done long ago.

Justice Boatright points to his father, an extremely well-respected and honored attorney, for having the biggest impact on his life.  He credits his dad with teaching him humility, and passing on a work ethic that has guided and shaped his career and life.  Professionally, Senior Judge Michael Villano (his godfather), played a huge role in setting the highest example for judicial temperament and demeanor for Justice Boatright to follow.  Judge Villano administered the oath to Justice Boatright at his ceremonial swearing-in at the state capitol on December 13, 2011.

He mentions former Governor Bill Ritter as someone who made a significant impact on him.  When Justice Boatright was nominated as a county court judge, he was told that talking to then-Denver DA Ritter regarding his upcoming interview with Governor Romer would be a good idea.  Brian is still astounded that, although they knew each other only slightly at the time, DA Ritter spent over 45 minutes with him, conducting a mock interview.  Having someone going out of their way for a virtual stranger like that made an impression on Brian that hasn’t faded many years later.

Justice Boatright served as a district court judge in Jefferson County for over ten years.  For the last several years before his appointment to the Supreme Court, he was overseeing a dedicated juvenile docket.  It is his devotion to juvenile issues and children that perhaps defines Justice Boatright the best.  He will miss seeing the joy that resulted from a successful adoption or a positive end to a dependency and neglect case with a family being reunited.  Being a parent had a huge impact on his handling of juvenile cases, giving perspective on virtually every decision.  In recognition of his tireless work on behalf of children, Jefferson County has named a playground at the Human Services Building the Honorable Brian Boatright Playground.

From a long and varied career, Justice Boatright has several ideas regarding the legal profession and the role of the judiciary.  A book he recommends to judges or those interested in the bench is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  It deals with preconceived notions, an issue that can obviously impact decisions from the bench.  Interestingly, Governor Hickenlooper has read the book, and it was mentioned during the Supreme Court appointment process by the governor.  One example of the problems preconceived notions can create was a situation that came up during Justice Boatright’s juvenile docket.  He was dealing with a difficult termination of parental rights case where the mother came across as “rough” with a questionable lifestyle.  During the proceedings, Justice Boatright started to question his initial impressions of this woman, wondering if the way she presented herself was prejudicing him against her.  He began to think the termination case might be more based upon her poverty instead of her inability to be a good parent.  In the end, he denied the petition, and did not terminate this mother’s parental rights, despite his initial perception of her.

Justice Boatright would like the attorneys who will be appearing in front of him, as well as all the citizens of Colorado, to know that he respects the separation of powers so fundamental to our system.  He trusts the law, and he trusts in our system of justice.  He knows he’s starting a new phase of his career in which people will likely disagree with him at times, but to the Colorado legal community, he sends the following: he will apply the law to the utmost of his ability, no matter the case or issue.  He is clearly honored to be appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court.  I feel the honor is ours.

Little-known facts and trivia about Justice Brian Boatright:

  • His dream job?  General Manager of the Colorado Rockies.
  • In the third grade, he appeared in a commercial for JetEx, where he was supposed to say “My dad wears a polka-dotted tie.”  He couldn’t say “polka-dotted,” settling for “poka-a-dot” tie.  He made $25 for the commercial, although he still seems bitter that his parents took 75% of that as his “agents.”  His potential drama career sadly ended after he played Snoopy in a middle school production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”  He seemed strangely reluctant to discuss this episode of his life.
  • He can remember and sing all the words to the Schoolhouse Rock classic “I’m Just a Bill.”  (“I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill . . . .”). Don’t read anything into the fact that he makes no such claim about the Schoolhouse Rock song about the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  I’m sure he knows the preamble.  Well, pretty sure anyway.
  • Eating apples make him sweat.  The tarter the apple, the more he sweats.  (Good information for attorneys practicing before the Supreme Court to have.  If you’re planning to bring apples to the justices, a la one for the teacher in school, best to leave Justice Boatright out.  Or bring a very sweet apple.)  He views this . . . ability?  Talent? I’m not sure what to call it . . . as a “good party trick.”  I don’t know what sort of parties he goes to.  Or will get invited to now.
  • Despite last season, he still thinks CU joining the Pac-12 was a good idea.  Clearly, he has trouble leaving some irrational thoughts behind.  (I’m guessing Governor Hickenlooper didn’t ask him this question.)
  • He has thus far resisted the temptation to wear his purple Rockies robe, but doesn’t rule out wearing it if they win the World Series.
  • I’m exercising some discretion, and will not disclose his response to the classic “boxers or briefs?” question.  Just use your imagination here, dear reader.
  • He advises trial judges that he may reverse just so they can have the same attitude he had when he was reversed.  (Not that he was ever reversed.)  That attitude?  “Wow – the upper court really got it right!”
  • His most embarrassing moment on the bench?  (So far.)  When he was presiding over an allocation of parental responsibilities hearing and asked to no one in particular, “Who entered the APR order in this case?”  Following an awkward silence, his long-time clerk Sonya said, “You did. Two weeks ago.”  His response?  “Oh.”
  • His favorite saying while on the bench?  “Closed mouth gathers no foot.”
  • He wanted me to make clear that his brother is older than he is.  Much older.
  • For someone who has shot to the top of his profession, he has a surprisingly lousy sense of direction.  When we finished this interview at Buffalo Wild Wings after two hours or so (and, let’s be clear – no alcohol.  Just iced tea and Coke.  Honest.), Justice Boatright went completely the wrong way and tried to exit the restaurant through the back wall.

My deepest thanks and appreciation to the entire First Judicial District bench for their ideas for questions to their former colleague.  Special acknowledgement to Judge Margie Enquist, who tipped me off about the apple issue, the “poka-a-dot,” and the Bill song.  Justice Boatright expressed that his greatest regret about his appointment is leaving all these great folks behind.  I understand why he feels that way.

Bradley A. Burback is a county court judge in the First Judicial District.

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