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Making a Difference

By Dave Shelles

Volume 12, Number 3 | May 2011

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Marilyn KiteIt took some cajoling for Marilyn Kite to put her name in for a spot on the Wyoming Supreme Court, but in 2000, she became Wyoming's first female justice.

Ten years later, she made history again, becoming Wyoming's first female chief justice.

Now, the 1974 graduate of the University of College of Law hopes to help other women make history in Wyoming, encouraging more women to enter the judiciary.

"I think it's important for people who appear in court to have the judiciary be somewhat reflective of society. In my view, they'll feel better about being judged if they're being judged by what they perceive to be a fair representation of society. It just makes sense," says Kite, one of 19 female state chief justices nationwide.

After graduating from law school, she took a job as the senior assistant attorney general until 1978, when she went into private practice at Holland & Hart. She loved everything about being a trial lawyer and never thought about being a judge until a friend in a high place put the bug in her ear.

The late Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Larry Lehman inspired Kite to consider putting her name in for the opening created when Justice Richard Macy retired in 1998. Lehman worked with Kite's brother, Rawlins District Judge Ken Stebner, and practiced law with Kite's husband, Skip Jacobson. Apparently, Lehman thought Kite had what it takes to be a justice, but Kite weighed the decision carefully.

By the time Lehman started encouraging her to apply, Kite and her husband were practicing law in Jackson, and they had a son, Gus. She served on the judicial nominating commission, a panel that reviews applications of interest in justiceships, so she knew what the panel — and the governor, who ultimately appoints justices — wanted in their justices. She talked to a female friend who served as a supreme court justice in Colorado to get the perspective of another woman in the judiciary.

It then became a question of logistics — spending a week every month in Cheyenne while her husband and son stayed in Jackson. Kite says her husband supported the idea, so she put her name in and applied for the opening. During a spring break trip to California in 2000, Kite and her family received a life-changing phone call from then – Governor Jim Geringer, informing her that she would be the first female justice on the Wyoming Supreme Court.

"At the same time, it was a bittersweet thing because I loved my law practice, and I loved my partners," Kite says. "It felt like I was leaving my family a little bit. It was exhilarating but sad at the same time. I had a wonderful, wonderful opportunity with the law firm."

Kite was sworn in on June 2, 2000, and was retained for eight-year terms in statewide votes in 2001 and 2008. On July 1, 2010, it became her turn to serve a four-year term as chief justice. The chief spot rotates among the sitting justices; in fact, three of the four remaining justices have served terms as chief.

For someone who wasn't sure about becoming a justice, Kite says it's the best job she's had. She says she loves the intellectual challenge and the chance to make a difference in society, to apply her legal knowledge and make a final decision on life-changing cases. Recently, she heard a case pitting a school district against a newspaper over the release of teacher salaries, which are public record under the state's open-records laws. At other times, she's heard cases in school finance and murder. "If you think you're making the right decision, which you do, hopefully, then you're making a difference in the right direction. You're making a positive impact on your fellow citizens and society in general," she says.

She hopes that one of those positive impacts will be to encourage more women to get involved with the judiciary. Just two of Wyoming's 22 district judges and five of Wyoming's 24 circuit judges are women. When she was on the nominating commission, Kite says she was surprised at how few women put their names in for judicial positions. The idea of giving women a voice on the bench, along with encouragement from her family and friends, is what initially motivated her to apply.

"Throughout that period of time, you had people asking, 'Why isn't there a woman on the Supreme Court? It's long overdue,'" Kite says. "People who felt like that were looking around and trying to encourage women to put their names in, and we still don't have good representation on the bench."

However, Kite says things are changing, and the numbers of women interested in law are increasing.

Today, roughly half of all law students are women, and around 30 percent of the membership in the Wyoming Bar Association is female, representing a substantial increase from when Kite became a lawyer. Lest anyone think the judgeship track begins early, one need only look at Kite's path to the bench in Cheyenne as evidence to the contrary.

"A lot of people you talk to in the interview process say, 'I've always wanted to be a judge,' and some people have a better plan for their lives than I did," she says. "Things just sort of happened."

 

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