By Keith Lewis
Justice Richard L. Gabriel was sworn in as the 104th Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court on September 1, 2015, marking a new chapter in the former Court of Appeals Judge’s prolific career. The Docket recently sat down with Colorado’s newest member of the Supreme Court to discuss his background and his thoughts about joining the Court.
Justice Gabriel is originally from Brooklyn, New York. After finishing college at Yale and law school at Penn, the future jurist, who is also an avid trumpeter, met his wife while they were both clerking for federal judges in Maryland over 25 years ago. They eventually got married, and her job offer in Denver drew the young couple to the Rocky Mountains for good.
As a lawyer, Gabriel was a litigator for the Denver mega firm Holme Roberts & Owen (now Bryan Cave). In that role, he argued trial and appellate cases primarily involving business issues, including commercial litigation and intellectual property. He was instrumental in representing music industry copyright holders against illegal digital file sharing in the early years of the millennium. He also spent several years serving as a city prosecutor for Lafayette, by way of a contract with his firm, before his first judicial appointment in 2008.
While spending the past seven years on the Colorado Court of Appeals, Judge Gabriel reviewed a significant number of appellate cases. He points out that the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court review, for the most part, “the exact same cases.” A vast portion of the Supreme Court’s docket comes directly from the Court of Appeals. For Justice Gabriel, deliberating with colleagues on an appellate panel is a skill that can be “crucial for collegial decision-making.”
Given the conspicuous overlap between the functions of Colorado’s two appellate courts, it may come as a surprise that Justice Gabriel is the first Colorado Supreme Court Justice to have come from the Court of Appeals in over three decades. The current body of the Court, excluding Justice Gabriel, is made up of three former district court judges and three former government appellate attorneys. For years, the stepping stones to the Supreme Court were through the Attorney General’s Office or in a district court appointment. Any current Court of Appeals judge aspiring to the Supreme Court must have taken notice of the recent outlier.
Justice Gabriel believes that his career as a “business litigator, which was unlike the career paths of the other justices, will add insight to any case’s far-reaching, real-world impact on individuals, businesses and the economy.” He will be able to offer a unique perspective honed from his days representing clients facing real-world business constraints, similar to the way in which retiring Justice Greg Hobbs contributed exceptional insight into deliberations on water law.
As for extrajudicial work, Justice Gabriel has a passion for advancing professionalism. He contrasts the Denver legal market on his arrival in 1990 with the larger and more competitive market of today. He remembers that in 1990, the legal community was considerably smaller. He describes the small-town feel that longtime Denver lawyers often fondly recall. By several accounts, a measure of grace characterized the practice of law much more 20 years ago than it does today.
Justice Gabriel notes that Denver is no longer sheltered from “Rambo lawyering” by the quicker karma that typifies a small legal community. In his view, Hollywood’s portrayal of lawyers deserves at least some of the blame. Justice Gabriel reminds us that half a century ago, “the model of a lawyer was Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.” He laments that the new model is Tom Cruise’s character in A Few Good Men, who pounds his fist on the table while over-dramatically screaming, “I want the truth!” Justice Gabriel has mulled over the probability that on-screen lawyers have created unreasonable expectations in real-world clients, who falsely attribute strength to the “Rambo-lawyer.” In reality, such conduct demonstrates only desperation, is rarely persuasive and seldom serves anyone.
Through it all, Justice Gabriel remains optimistic about the profession. During his time on the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professional Development and the CBA/DBA Professionalism Coordinating Council, he has written articles and helped to develop professionalism presentations, complete with edifying vignettes of real-world problems that have been incredibly well-received. Justice Gabriel has taken the positive feedback from these groups to heart. “I think we are heading in the right direction as a profession,” he concludes.
In addition to serving as the leading jurists of Colorado’s judicial system under principles of stare decisis, the seven-member Supreme Court also forms the virtuous leadership of the entire Colorado bench and bar. Coming from this leadership perspective, Justice Gabriel offers dual-pronged yet simple advice for younger lawyers: “(1) do what you are passionate about, and (2) always take the high road.”
That is sage advice from a role model of our profession; it reminds us that life is too short to sacrifice our passions or our credibility for fleeting gains. The value of these treasures is far too great to let slip. Justice Gabriel believes that his cultivation of both credibility and collegiality has helped him to earn the respect of even his opponents over the years. That was undoubtedly an important factor in his appointment. The highest compliment that a lawyer can receive is a positive reference from a former opponent, and there was no shortage of former opponents who regarded him highly enough to recommend his appointment to the Supreme Court. Talk about a compliment!
Previously published in The Docket.