Six years after earning a political science degree, Shelley Hill had a job working for the U.S. Department of Energy and an important decision looming.
“I just knew that I didn’t want to be a Washington bureaucrat for the rest of my life,” said Hill, 60, now a Steamboat Springs resident and district court judge in the 14th Judicial District. “I decided to go to law school.”
A legal career wasn’t something Hill was drawn to growing up, she said. Her father spent his career in the U.S. Marine Corps, and Hill, who was born in Beaufort, S.C., frequently moved with her family.
“You name it, we lived there,” she said of her family, which included her parents, Twyman (Ty) and Grace, and sister Nancy.
Hill recalls living in Guam, graduating high school in Rome, and attending The American College of Switzerland before deciding to transfer to The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where she earned her undergraduate degree.
Then, after years spent toiling for the federal government, Hill decided to pursue a field no one from her family ever had — law.
Hill decided on Vermont Law School, located in the small town of South Royalton.
Hill said Vermont Law School was the right choice for her and helped her develop a passion for the law.
“It was a wonderful law school,” she said. “Just intellectually stimulating and just (had) a lot of good people from all over the country, good professors. It was just a wonderful experience … a great group of people.”
Hill stayed in Vermont after graduation and accepted a job with the Vermont State’s Attorney’s Office as a deputy state’s attorney, or “the equivalent of a district attorney,” she said.
She spent five years in that post, and then ran and won a campaign for state’s attorney, becoming only the second elected female state’s attorney in Vermont history.
“The woman who (was elected before) me was elected in 1950-something,” Hill said. “She was ahead of her time.”
Like law school, Hill’s first job as an attorney helped sharpen her perception of the law and discover areas she enjoyed most.
“I love criminal law,” Hill said. “It’s all Constitutional law, and Constitutional law is just fascinating.”
Law merges with life
As Hill’s career began to flourish, so too did her personal life.
She met Paul Hughes in 1986 in Windsor, Vt. The couple married a year later, and a few years later they welcomed their only child, Evan.
Hill worked in private practice following her term as state’s attorney, getting her first taste of life on the other side of the courtroom. She said she didn’t prefer one more than the other, but noticed differences in how private attorneys practice compared to prosecutors.
“You have a partner when you have a client,” she said. “When you’re a criminal prosecutor, you’re basically trying to achieve justice. And you make the decisions all on your own.”
Hill and her family faced a difficult decision of their own when Hughes was offered a job as Steamboat Springs city manager in 1998 while Hill was serving as bar counsel to the Vermont Supreme Court.
“I allowed him to take (the job) because Colorado had reciprocity with Vermont and I didn’t have to take the bar exam again,” she said, laughing.
But, practicing in a new state would indeed come with challenges.
“The statutes are different and … different case law, so there was a learning curve,” she said. “But it’s all based on the same stuff, so eventually you learn it.”
A new state, new challenges
Hill’s first job in Colorado helped familiarize her with a new system. She served as magistrate for the 14th Judicial District, hearing mostly domestic cases in Craig and Hot Sulphur Springs.
“It was part of the learning curve,” Hill said of being a magistrate. “I hadn’t practiced domestic relations even in Vermont since I was in private practice. The procedures are different, the rules are different.”
Hill also said her time as magistrate “absolutely” prepared her to be a judge, a goal she set “when I was a prosecutor back in Vermont.”
After spending three years working for the Steamboat Springs law firm Klauzer and Tremaine, Hill realized that goal when Gov. Bill Owens appointed her district judge for the 14th Judicial District in 2006.
“Being a prosecutor you try to achieve justice, and to me that’s very attractive rather than being a proponent for one side or the other,” she said. “I like to look at an issue and try to do the right thing.”
Like all district judges in Colorado, Hill served two years after being appointed before coming up for retention, when voters choose whether judges stay on the bench for an additional 6-year term.
The Colorado Office of Judicial Performance and Review, the state agency that monitors and makes recommendations on judges and retention, left little doubt about its opinion of Hill.
“The 14th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Perfor-
mance recommends by a unanimous vote that Judge Shelley A. Hill be retained,” the commission wrote.
The commission also wrote that 95 percent of attorneys and 84 percent of non-attorneys surveyed supported her retention, which she earned in the 2008 election.
Doug Timmerman, an attorney with Romney Law firm and husband of a member of the 14th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance, agreed with the commission’s evaluation of Hill, especially when it comes to the tone she sets in her courtroom.
“She’s good at making all parties in her courtroom comfortable,” he said, “disarming them so there are no nerves, and that’s important.”
He’s also impressed with Hill’s ability to maintain and balance her workload, another area where the commission gave Hill high marks.
Praise for Hill’s work came from across the courtroom isle as well.
Elizabeth Oldham, 14th Judicial District Attorney, said Hill can be counted on for a fair assessment of any situation.
“She is a woman who has great understanding of the law,” Oldham said. “She is respectful of everyone and intelligent.
“She’s a very logical and rational person who listens to both sides and tries to do the right thing.”
Brett Barkey, assistant district attorney for the 14th and the attorney hoping to replace Oldham in November, agreed with Oldham’s assessment.
“She is a very reasonable jurist who takes all views into consideration,” he said. “She’s an outstanding judge and we are lucky to have her.”
Barkey, a former active duty Marine still in the reserves, also said he knows how much her father’s Marine service means to Hill, adding that she brings the same passion to her service as a judge.
Hill said she works hard and always tries to be receptive to those arguing cases in front of her.
“I try to be patient and listen carefully,” she said. “I work very hard. I always am familiar with a case before I go out on the bench, and I’m familiar with the issues that are presented.
“I usually do not rule from the bench because I like to look at the law and the facts before I make a decision. I try my darndest to do the right thing.”
Hill has many memories from her time on the bench.
At the end of her first trial in Hot Sulphur Springs, the defendant who had just been convicted fainted as Hill was trying to figure out a sentencing date.
Another time, a potential juror decided to leave the courtroom in the middle of jury selection despite Hill’s warning to stay put. That incident resulted in a $400 contempt of court citation.
Hill also has faced challenges while on the bench, many of which stem from cases with no legal precedent.
“You might expect for all of the legal questions to have been answered by now, after all this time, by the appellate courts, but they’re not,” she said. “It’s not so easy when you have a case of first impression to decide the outcome because you know the appellate courts are going to be looking at it.”
Of all the challenges that come with the job, Hill said her gender hasn’t caused very many of them as a judge. That wasn’t always true during her time as a prosecutor.
“I think the gender difference does bring an element to the table that historically has not been there,” she said. “Women are certainly accepted more and more. … But, back in the day, sure, there were issues with being a woman that made it difficult, especially as a prosecutor dealing with police.”
Hill credits a cultural shift, as well as an increase of women in the workforce, especially in law, for the change in how women are perceived in the workplace.
“I think women are accepted now in law enforcement, in the legal community, as judges,” she said. “… I don’t think we’re quite equal yet because I don’t think the average woman’s wage is up to the man’s, but we sure are getting there.”
Hill gave a direct answer when asked about her goals for the future: Retention.
“I’m extremely happy with what I’m doing,” she said. “We’ll see if the electorate agrees in 2014 (when Hill is up for retention).
“I just come to work every day trying to do the best job I can at maintaining my fairness and my impartiality and my integrity to try and represent the judicial system the best I can.”
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