By Don Knox, LAW WEEK COLORADO
DENVER — Chris Phillips’ professional life has been a collection of interesting jobs, from Yosemite Park ranger to budget analyst to civil litigator. Later, in a 16-year career as a Jefferson County prosecutor, she handled traffic, juvenile felony, domestic violence and, ultimately, homicide cases.
Soon she’ll be a judge in the 1st Judicial District, succeeding M.J. Menendez, who returned recently to the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver. Phillips’ swearing-in is Aug. 28.
Being a judge “was not one of those things I thought about when I started out 20 years ago. It started out and evolved over time,” said Phillips, now 50, last week.
Picked as a judge by Gov. Bill Ritter on her first try, a rarity, Phillips said she wanted a “new intellectual challenge.”
In the 1990s, she prosecuted the death-penalty case of one of Colorado’s most heinous murderers, Cody Neal. She raised her hand for Menendez’s seat just days after Michael Muniz pleaded guilty to the 1996 murder of a 46-year-old Wheat Ridge woman. Had the Muniz case, which Philips handled, gone to trial, she wouldn’t have bothered applying.
“Sometimes, it’s serendipity,” she said.
Phillips considered a judgeship in part because she didn’t want to be the elected district attorney, a post held by Scott Storey. She also cited some instability for chief deputies, who are most at risk of losing their jobs in a transition. Finally, her husband, Assistant Colorado U.S. Attorney Zak Phillips, encouraged her.
“I wanted to broaden my horizons, go back into civil law, go into domestic relations law. … I’m sort of a law geek. I enjoy the motions practice almost as much as the trials.”
A youth spent in parks
As a youth, Phillips lived in national parks all over the country because her father was a maintenance supervisor for the National Park Service.
She was born in the Tetons and attended small schools at the Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Mount Rainier and Sequoia Kings parks. She lobbed herself through California State University at Fresno on a volleyball scholarship.
She toyed with the idea of going to graduate school to be a school teacher, but the pay was poor. She ended up going to Yosemite National Park, where she got a job in law enforcement as a park ranger. She also worked as an emergency medical technician, and she drove an ambulance.
Her then-husband, also a ranger, eventually was transferred to Rocky Mountain National Park, but she couldn’t continue her work as a ranger because of an administrative rule against married couples working as rangers in the same park.
Instead, she worked as a budget analyst for the park until she decided to attend the University of Colorado’s School of Law.
She was hired out of law school an associate civil litigator for Weller Friedrich Ward & Andrew, a 40-person Cherry Creek product liability and insurance defense law firm that “imploded.”
Civil litigation, however, didn’t inspire her career passions, so she returned in 1993 to public service, this time at the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s office.
There, she started out doing county court matters such as traffic and misdemeanors, until joining the juvenile felony unit. She spent two or three years handling felony dockets in district court before launching into domestic violence work and, finally, homicides.
As one of seven chief deputies, she currently supervises eight attorneys in four divisions, including the division she’s taking over. She’s also has courtroom duties, and she’s responsible for going to the scenes of homicides.
“She’ll be a great judge,” said her boss, DA Scott Storey. “She’s got a very strong work ethic, a sharp legal mind and a passion for doing justice. She’s a good fit for this bench. She’s obviously been a prosecutor for many years. She has some civil experience as well.”
‘Not a fluff interview’
It was her work as a prosecutor that prompted questions from Ritter, also a longtime prosecutor.
“It wasn’t a fluff interview,” Phillips said. “He really vets his candidates. He wanted to know about my civil experience and whether I was willing to pick up the civil docket and the domestic relations docket. He wanted to know how I could be fair to both sides if I was a prosecutor.”
Phillips said that her long experience was an advantage because younger lawyers see everything so black and white. “As you get older you see the grays,” she said.
Ritter had done “a huge amount of research” on the prospective candidates, she said. The governor talked to people Phillips hadn’t listed on her application and made calls to various judges on the bench. As is usual with candidate interviews, the governor’s lawyers, Trey Rogers and Craig Welling, sat in.
The other finalists were SEC lawyer Elizabeth Krupa and Lakewood private-practice attorney Thomas Walsh.
Storey said he will not immediately fill Phillips’ position, preferring to shift resources around for the time being.
“It’s a budget issue. I’m going to take a more active role as far as a day-to-day role.” With a quick laugh, he said, “I’ll be more of a factor. I’m just going to have to work harder and put in more hours.”