Conversations With … Judge Mary Hoak
Ryan Summerlin April 5, 2012
Judge Mary Hoak was the first female Grand County Court Judge and the third female District Court Judge in the 14th Judicial District.
In March, I sat down with her in her chambers in Hot Sulphur Springs to find out more about her and what it’s like being a judge in Grand County .
What is your history in Grand County; how long have you lived here?
I am originally from Des Moines, Iowa. I came out to Grand County after high school in October 1983. Some people come here and some stay. It gets into your soul and you fall in love and stay.
After college and law school I worked in Denver for a year. In 2002 I worked as a prosecutor in Clear Creek in the 5th Judicial District. I liked it. It was a different look at things, a different perspective. I’m glad I had that perspective. I’ve done the job that the attorneys are doing in front of me. And I gained a good knowledge of the law from that.
I opened a law practice here in January 1994 practicing civil cases, divorce, and criminal defense until February 2003 when I became a county court judge in Grand County.
Where did you go to law school?
I attended law school at the University of Chicago.
What attracted you to the law?
I needed a career, I had a liberal arts degree, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My mother told me I should be a lawyer because I argued with her as a teenager and fought it because my mother told me to, and she was right. There’s a lesson – always listen to your mother.
I was a paralegal in New York City before law school. I was in a federal courtroom in Newark, New Jersey, sitting in the gallery. I was watching the case and oral arguments. If we won, it would’ve been significant, and watching the argument was so good. I was on the edge of my seat, and thinking this is so exciting, this is what I want to do.
When I applied to be a judge, I had been here almost eight years (as a lawyer) and appeared in front of Judge Cecil Wayne Williams and Judge Richard P. Doucette in District Court. Williams was retiring, and I thought, that may be something I can do and enjoy and applied.
I was appointed County Judge in Grand County by Governor Owens in August 2002 and took the bench on February 15, 2003. I was appointed District Court Judge for the Fourteenth Judicial District by Governor Ritter on July 3, 2008, and took the District Court bench on July 5, 2008. It was very exciting to be appointed and meet the governor. It’s such an honor. To serve as a judge is an honor because you’re serving the people of Colorado and it’s important to never lose sight of that.
Do you have a different persona when you are in court?
I don’t have a different persona, but it’s a different part of my personality that I develop. You have to deal with people in different situations. I took the bench when I was 38 years old and to take bench at 38 you need to take control of the courtroom. I don’t act that way in public.
Do you know instinctively that someone is telling the truth?
No, I do not know. I don’t think that you can know that. If you are the finder of fact, you need to use your life experience and look at the evidence in the case to determine if someone is telling the truth. You look at everything and make a determination. Lawyers try to show someone is not being truthful, but you see that more from evidence.
What are your pet peeves in court?
Not being on time and not being prepared. It is better for the system if we are all prepared – for the best result, including the judge.
Living and working in a small town, does being a judge affect your social-personal life?
I can clear a bar faster than a police officer. It’s an interesting experience. People knock over bar stools as they leave. I’m always the judge. That is who I am all the time. And sometimes I forget. I can be at Safeway and people approach me and it takes me a minute to realize I’m the judge. I have close friends and I’m never the judge, and they don’t know me that way. They know me in a different context. That’s a small town; and it’s fun to go on vacation. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but I behave in a manner that is acceptable and expected of me.
Have the day-to-day realities in the courtroom changed since you first became a judge?
It is a different hearing with pro se (people representing themselves). They bring a fresh perspective. They question things and I’ve had to re-read rules. They ask why is that like that and it makes me think of things in a different way. In the last three or four years there have been a lot of foreclosures. Trends we see are fewer criminal cases and fewer divorces, more civil cases from development deals falling apart and more litigation.
In most of the cases everything is electronic, I send out orders to the parties or attorneys via e-mail. As a result, I can work from anywhere. We’ve come a long way – leaps and bound with e-filing resulting in less paper. It’s interesting how far we have come and how far we have to go.
What is the proper way to address you?
Judge, Your Honor or ma’am. The system is important – government is important. The Hurricane in Louisiana is an example of what happens when all social systems disappear. It’s chaos. It’s important to respect the system. … The courtroom is not casual. There is a formal procedure where everyone is respected. That is why we stand when a judge enters the room. There is no swearing and we dress appropriately. Just as you meet the governor or a legislator – you stand to talk to a judge, it’s part of the procedure. You must respect the position, and respect the judiciary. The position of judge deserves your respect. …
Grand County juries totally humble me and want to make me a better judge. As a judge I’ve never seen a jury take a case lightly in Grand County, which is what should happen. It is never casual. I’m proud that people take it so seriously. It’s so important. They are brave; they have to see things that people don’t want to see.
What are your favorite cases?
Adoptions, they are happy things. Courtrooms aren’t the happiest places. It’s a place of conflict.
Do you have aspirations to work in a higher court?
I love being a judge, and that is determined by the people of the 14th District every six years. This job is so challenging. There are new and fresh challenges every day. It is the most intellectually challenging job. I’ve never been bored. I am now up for retention every six years. If I decide to run, I will next be on the ballot in November of 2016 because I was retained in the November 2010 election. My current term expires in January 2017. If I am retained (and that is a vote in all three counties – the whole judicial district – Grand, Routt, and Moffat), I would get another six years.