CHEYENNE — Gov. Matt Mead’s selection Tuesday of his chief of staff, Kari Jo Gray, to fill an upcoming Wyoming Supreme Court vacancy means it will soon have a majority of women serving as justices for the first time.
It also means Mead will have selected every justice on the five-member high court, which will soon have just two justices with previous experience as a judge in a lower court.
Gray is slated to take over from Justice E. James Burke, who will officially retired Oct. 8.
Gray has served as Mead’s political right hand since he was sworn into office for his first term. She was one of three names submitted to Mead by the Judicial Nominating Commission to replace Burke, who has been a member of the state Supreme Court since 2005. The other two were First Judicial District Judge Steven K. Sharpe, based in Laramie County, and Fourth Judicial District Judge John G. Fenn, based in Sheridan County.
Gray, a longtime Douglas resident, was a city attorney and formerly in private practice for 12 years before becoming Mead’s chief of staff in 2011. She also served for one year as director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services, along with experience as vice president of a bank.
Mead said all three names put forward by the commission were excellent. But he said he has seen firsthand Gray’s work ethic, command of the law, writing ability and passion for the justice system, along with her experience outside of the courtroom in the private sector – all qualities that made her the right pick for the upcoming vacancy.
“She was one of the top of her law class,” Mead said. “She’s got great experience in terms of her background, which includes not just the banking law and the domestic law and running an agency. But in her day-to-day duties in the office of governor, she’s seen about every type of legal matter that’s come across our desk you can imagine. And that’s beneficial as well.
“Great attorneys make great judges. And when (Gray) was in private practice, she practiced in front of every district judge in the state, and that provides a wealth of experience.”
This marks the third woman appointed to the Supreme Court bench by Mead, joining Justices Kate Fox and Lynne Boomgaarden to make up the first female majority in the state high court’s history.
While Mead is proud of that milestone, he said it was not the guiding force behind the selection. Instead, each candidate was chosen on the merits of their candidacy and the experience they’d bring to the role.
Wyoming will now have three justices who joined the Supreme Court without previous experience as a judge. When compared to 14 other states that have similar selection processes, Wyoming has the least total years on the bench prior to service on the highest court in the state at 16. Utah is a close second with only 18 years of prior judicial experience, but only one of its justices did not serve as a judge in a lower court.
But the lack of judicial experience of this current court isn’t unique. University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King said, historically, “it is not unusual for members of the Wyoming Supreme Court not to have prior judicial experiences. About half of recent justices have come from the district courts and about half from private practice.”
Mead said his goal when faced with each of the five nominations he made to the state Supreme Court was to create a well-rounded judiciary that brings a plethora of experiences that go beyond hearing cases as a judge. Gray, Boomgaarden and Fox all have experience both in and out of the courtroom that make them valuable to that goal, Mead said.
“I think that having a well-rounded Supreme Court is my goal. To have someone like Lynne Boomgaarden, who has years of experience practicing in front of the oil and gas commission, if she would have been on the bench the whole time, she wouldn’t have that experience,” Mead said. “There’s great value in being in the trenches both ways. There’s great value in a district court judge knowing what it’s like to run a courtroom, and there’s great experience in the attorney who day in and day out is in the court.”
Mead also said Gray’s appointment had nothing to do with trying to find a landing spot for a longtime staffer and political ally as his time in the governor’s office draws to a close. He said it was instead a hamstring to his final months in office, especially as his staff prepares the final budget to be presented to the state Legislature.
“It’s exactly the opposite. I want everyone in my staff to have a bright future, but it’s a challenge to lose staff,” Mead said. “My hope two months ago was everyone I had on staff now is able to stay until the end. And that hasn’t turned out. I’ve already had two key people lured away with other jobs. I support them and always wish them the best, but especially as you come down to the finish line, it’s hard to lose key people.
“It’s going to be hard to make some of the adjustments in the office. I wish her well, but it’s dang hard to lose her.”
King said it is unusual for a Wyoming governor to pick a member of their staff for the high court.
“But it is important to remember that the governor’s choice is constrained,” King said. “Obviously, commission members were impressed enough with Gray’s credentials to include her among the three finalists for the position.”
When Gray is sworn in, Mead will have selected all five sitting Supreme Court justices, along with dozens of lower court judges.
“We’ve now appointed over half of the judicial branch in the state,” Mead said. “I’ve really had what I view as the great privilege of appointing so many judges in an eight-year period.”
While it might be easy to call the new Supreme Court the Mead court, King said it’s hard to think of the state’s judicial branch as being solely shaped by Mead.
“To have all members of the Supreme Court appointed by one governor is unusual,” King said. “But the process of selected judges in Wyoming, with the Judicial Nominating Commission providing a slate of nominees from which the governor must choose, and the retention vote that is necessary for a justice or judge to remain in office, does not provide the governor with the same opportunity to stack the judiciary in the manner that a president can with lifetime appointments to the federal courts.”