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At 72, Chief Justice Bender retires from Colorado Supreme Court

By Jordan Steffen
The Denver Post

Retiring Chief Justice Michael Bender has left indelible imprints in subjects as diverse as First Amendment rights, water laws and criminal justice.

But during his 17 years on the Colorado Supreme Court, Bender knew his most important service was ensuring that everyone was heard and respected.

More than 30 years as an attorney taught Bender that every person in the judicial system is influential, even if they don't recognize it. When he was appointed chief justice in December 2010, he asked everyone — from justices, judges, clerks and bailiffs — to acknowledge the impact they have on the court system — and improve it.

"A leader can set the vision, but a leader can't do it," Bender said. "The people that you are supposed to lead are the ones that really do the work."

Wednesday marked Bender's 72nd birthday and the mandatory retirement age. During his time as chief, Bender spent two summers traveling across Colorado, touring all 22 judicial districts. The chief's towering figure, soaring well above 6 feet, melted in to small talk with staff who quickly felt comfortable expressing their concerns and ideas.

"What surprised me the most were the enormous number of people who were very dedicated to the judicial system, that really cared about it," Bender said. "They wanted to feel like part of a larger system and the need to do something in the public good."

Both before becoming chief and after, Bender knew the biggest challenge facing the judicial branch is resources. Caseloads continue to grow faster than staff, he said.

Almost immediately, he worked to improve existing programs, as well as start new initiatives that would improve efficiency. More important, he looked for ways to ensure fairness and justice in each judicial district, in many cases addressing the unique needs of the community.

Along with his staff and colleagues, Bender worked to upgrade technology at courthouses. He started a leadership program for judges and improved self-help centers for the increasing number of people forced to appear in court without representation. Across the state, interpreters can now assist people in 85 languages.

But Bender also looked ahead to future generations. He coordinated with the state's two law schools — the University of Colorado and the University of Denver — to create mentoring programs for young lawyers and law students. The University of Wyoming will join the program next year.

"The chief really asked the profession and the branch to sprint for three years, and everyone has really risen to that challenge," said Sarah Clark, counsel to the chief justice. "People believe in this vision, and we're seeing the effects of that."

Clark, who first worked for Bender as an intern in 2005, was always amazed at her mentor's energy and dedication. Despite being in constant motion, and almost never taking a lunch break, Bender's door was always open and tours were welcome.

"The chief has a very unusual ability. He's able to show people just how important they are in the system and in the process," Clark said. "He's not someone who rose to this position of power and it was all about him. For the chief, it is all about everybody else."

Justice Gregory Hobbs served almost 16 years with Bender. Like his colleagues, Bender never failed to listen or learn from others, Hobbs said. While deciding a groundwater case, Bender spent months learning laws and asking his colleagues to share their knowledge and opinions.

"He's a forceful man to deal with," Hobbs said.

Despite Bender's passion and strong opinions, he always kept an open mind, Hobbs said.

Read more: At 72, Chief Justice Bender retires from Colorado Supreme Court - The Denver Post 

Background Photo Credit: Kasia Broussalian © 2015