Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey, who according to Colorado’s state constitution was set to appoint four members to the state’s redistricting commission in 2011,Â announced her retirement on June 4, after 23 years on the Court. At the age of 66, she is the longest-tenured chief justice in Colorado history, as well as the first female chief justice. Clear the Bench Colorado has claimed victory over her announcement. Clear the Bench is a group of conservative activists dedicated to unseating four justices whom it has deemed liberal activists. Chief Justice Mullarkey was one of their targets. By retiring, she gives Democratic Colorado Governor Bill Ritter (who is also retiring) the opportunity to nominate her successor. Mullarkey, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994, likely viewed this as her best chance to receive an ideologically similar successor, as Republican Scott McInnis held a decent lead over Democrat John Hickelooper in the most recent Rasmussen poll for the Colorado gubernatorial race. Currently, five of the seven justices on the Colorado Supreme Court were appointed by Democrats.
Chief Justice Mullarkey’s retirement figures into Colorado’s upcoming redistricting as well. Redistricting of state legislative seats in Colorado is done by an eleven-member commission. Four members of the commission are directly selected by the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. Three are appointed by the governor, and each leader in the legislature appoints one. In the 2001 redistricting cycle, Mullarkey’s four Democratic-leaning appointments to the commission, along with the two appointments made by the Democratic leaders in the legislature, led the commission to create a redistricting plan which favored Democrats and enabled them to gain control of both houses of the legislature in 2002. In 2004, when Republicans regained control, then-Senate President John Andrews attempted to pass a congressional redistricting plan more favorable to Republicans, which the Mullarkey court subsequently rejected in a 5-2 decision.
Under Colorado’s constitution, when the chief justice retires, the governor appoints a new justice from three nominees chosen by the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission, and then the justices elect a new chief from amongst themselves. By retiring now, Mullarkey ensures that a new similarly minded chief justice will be in place before the next court term. Her retirement reduces the risk that the other three liberal justices on the court will not be retained at this November’s election. A more conservative court that elects a more conservative chief justice, combined with a Republican governor, would enable Republicans to appoint a majority of Colorado’s redistricting commission in 2011.