In Memoriam: Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr.

Thoughts on the loss of a mentor and friend.

Hobbs and JMS 7-22-15

This is a tough one.

Former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs passed away last week, just a few days short of his 76th birthday. I was privileged to clerk for Justice Hobbs during the court’s 2000-01 Term, and he remained a professional mentor and personal friend for twenty years thereafter. Justice Hobbs showed me how a good judge conducts himself. More importantly, he showed me how a good person conducts himself, day in and day out.

Coming out of law school, I was very fortunate to have several clerkship offers to choose from, both at the state and federal level. But I instantly gravitated to Justice Hobbs. Although he did not move to Colorado until after he had graduated law school, he effortlessly exuded a Western passion and a Western sensibility that clicked with my deep Colorado roots. He embodied almost every Western stereotype you can imagine — outdoorsman, water lawyer, connoisseur of huevos rancheros, Bronco fan, relentless fan of bolo ties — but his deep knowledge of the state and its people made all of it seem so natural. (He could look out the window of his office in downtown Denver and rattle off the names of all the visible Front Range mountains, working from south to north.) Greg Hobbs was Colorado, and he always had the best interests of Coloradans at heart.

This is part of what made him such a perfect choice to succeed Judge William Ericksen on the state supreme court in 1996. Already one of the state’s top water lawyers, he was brought to the court from private practice by then-Governor Roy Romer. Water law and water rights are so critical in the West, and having an expert in the field on the court showed Romer’s strong commitment to experiential diversity within the judiciary. But Justice Hobbs’s intellectual curiosity and legal acumen went far beyond water law. He wrote hundreds of opinions during his nineteen years on the court, covering important issues in criminal law, property law, tort law, sovereign immunity, election law, and beyond.

Two particular opinions stand out from my clerkship year. The first involved a question about whether the state legislature could tax ski resorts for their possessory interests in the mountains on which they were situated. (The mountains themselves are federal property, and the ski resorts take on 99-year leases to operate facilities on those mountains.) The court determined, by a 4-3 vote, that such taxation was allowable under the state constitution. But for Justice Hobbs, this was not just a technical question of legislative power or constitutional authority. Rather, it was a question that drove at the heart of Colorado’s history, and the always-tenuous balance between government power, private enterprise, and the land itself. His majority opinion directly addressed the legal question while expertly weaving Colorado’s rich history into the footnotes. Early mining practices, farming and ranching activity, relationships with the National Parks Service, and even the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo make an appearance. It was an opinion that only Justice Hobbs could have written.

Another opinion had a more personal impact. The 2000-01 Term was an interesting time generally to be observing the judiciary. In November, the world watched as the Florida courts, and then the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled on the contested election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Slightly more under the radar, a federal judge in Texas was making a name for himself by writing snarky opinions that amounted to personal attacks on the lawyers who appeared before him. The opinions were mean-spirited but funny, and as a 25-year-old with limited life experience, I got caught up in reading them.

In the spring of 2001, when Justice Hobbs asked me to do a preliminary draft of an opinion involving a medical doctor who has been charged with negligent treatment of his patients, I saw an opportunity to emulate the snarky tone of the Texas judge. After all, the record suggested that the doctor was not particularly likeable, and had acted inappropriately. I assembled the draft and submitted it the Justice Hobbs for comment.

Gentle reader, I am sure you have guessed by now that the Good Judge was having none of it. He called me into his chambers discuss the draft. When I explained my belief that the doctor had misbehaved and the opinion was deserving of an angry tone, Justice Hobbs reminded me that behind every party name there is a real person with a real problem, and that good judging never requires embarrassing someone just for the sake of embarrassment. Moreover, he managed to convey that information without embarrassing me — and I certainly should have known better. It was a masterful way of explaining the point and demonstrating it at the same time. And I never forgot the larger lesson.

That’s just the way Greg Hobbs was. I mentioned that the first case was a 4-3 split, and indeed there were several such splits on the court during my clerkship year. Yet despite differences of opinion — often on controversial legal matters — Justice Hobbs and the other members of the Court always treated each other, their clerks, and their staff with the utmost collegiality and respect. There were no silos between chambers, and clerks were encouraged to interact with each other and with the other Justices. It was a remarkable place to work and learn.

My clerkship ended in August 2001, and I moved to Boston to begin private practice, mostly in intellectual property litigation. It was a far cry from the public-facing issues I had seen on the court, and largely outside the realm of Justice Hobbs’s expertise. But he remained unwavering in his support of my career, even reading (and offering insightful comments) on a draft article I had witten on trademark law. I would visit him every time I returned to Denver, and when I moved back to Colorado for a four-year stretch in the late 2000s, he welcomed my wife and I with open arms, helping us get reacclimated and situated in a rapidly changing Denver community.

When you lose someone, your immediate memories of him often pop up as unrelated and unexpected shards of larger moments. For me, Greg Hobbs is a Monday afternoon lunch at La Fiesta in Denver (where he could fill in the score of the previous day’s Bronco game on the big Bug Light-sponsored wall schedule). He is an unsolicited email containing yet another original poem championing the beauty of the West. He is an impromptu lecture on the water needs of the state’s Western slope. He is an exercise in love for family and humility in the profession.

The larger Colorado community is mourning the loss of Justice Hobbs, and I am still heartbroken. Donations can be made in his name to Water Education Colorado, an organization so near and dear to his heart.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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