What you should know about Colorado’s new Supreme Court judge

Gov. John Hickenlooper today named Judge Richard Gabriel of the Colorado Court of Appeals as the newest member of the Colorado Supreme Court.

Gabriel, 53, is a native of Brooklyn, New York and grew up on Long Island. He earned a degree in American Studies from Yale University and his juris doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Gabriel is the first judge from the Court of Appeals to be named to the state’s highest bench in several decades, according to the governor.

Gabriel has been on the appeals court since 2008. Prior to that, he was an associate with Holme, Roberts & Owen LLP, where he specialized in commercial litigation, including business torts, intellectual property and appeals.

During the announcement, Hickenlooper saluted Gabriel’s values of hard work and integrity. He also noted Gabriel’s business-oriented experience, which Hickenlooper said is an area underrepresented on the Court.

In her comments, Chief Justice Nancy Rice lauded the state’s system of merit appointments. In 22 states, justices are elected, some through partisan contests. In Colorado, appointments are handled by a nominating commission of 15 members, with the Chief Justice serving in an unofficial capacity. That group selects three nominees, unranked, and forwards them to the governor for review. “It’s a marvelous system,” she said.

Rice said she has known Gabriel for many years. “I plan to have Rich working very hard in the first hour,” she joked.

Hickenlooper said he vetted the names with legal organizations, his own legal staff and members of the Supreme Court. He did not vet the nominees with members of the General Assembly. “No matter how wild-minded a governor can be, you can’t make a bad choice because they give you three incredibly talented people,” he said.

Gabriel will replace retiring Justice Gregory Hobbs, Jr., on September 1, 2015. Hobbs has been on the Supreme Court since 1996 as an appointee of Gov. Roy Romer and has been on the court the longest of the current justices. Hobbs is the court’s expert on water law as well as an acknowledged expert on the subject off the court.

Hickenlooper said one question that arose during the nomination process was whether to seek a judge with water law experience. However, the justices had already thought about that several years ago. Hickenlooper said. They have had different justices writing opinions on water cases, with Hobbs working with them. “We were comforted and advised it was not a priority. We should look for the best ‘athlete.’”

Gabriel was the dissenting judge in a 2011 appeals court decision regarding an employee’s right to use medical marijuana. The employee lost his job for doing so. Gabriel wrote that “I believe that claimant had a constitutional right to use medical marijuana, and in my view, the denial of benefits based on his exercise of that right infringed the right.”

That view may be at odds with the majority in the state Supreme Court. In a separate case, Coats v. Dish Network, the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week that employers can terminate an employee for using medical marijuana, even if that use takes place outside of work hours.

Gabriel is a registered Democrat and married to Jill Wichlens, an appellate attorney with the Federal Public Defender’s Office. They have two daughters.

Photo credit: Marianne Goodland