When Gov. Roy Romer decided to appoint Hobbs to the state’s highest court in 1996, it was the realization of a career-long goal for the attorney. But Hobbs jokes a little about the day he learned he would be Romer’s pick.
He met with Romer, who had a tall stack of recommendation letters on his desk. Hobbs was one of three nominees for the Supreme Court vacancy, and would be among the seven justices Romer appointed during his 12 years in office.
When Romer asked Hobbs why he should appoint him to the Court, Hobbs says he replied that he holds the institutional knowledge of the various panels that work on natural resources issues. He’d drafted bills for the Legislature, and he’d worked with citizens’ boards and commissions, where he had to work collegially. That’s what Romer wanted: someone who knew how to get along with what was then a fractious group.
“You’re a flawed candidate,” Romer joked with Hobbs, referring to the stack of recommendations. Among those letters were commendations from Jim Martin, now at the Beatty & Wozniak firm and a former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Hobbs worked with Martin when Martin was on the staff of Sen. Tim Wirth, collaborating on a landmark 1993 wilderness bill. Romer waved Martin’s letter at Hobbs. “That’s the one,” the governor said.
Even with that support, though, Hobbs recalls that environmentalists were a little concerned about his nomination, given some of his past clients. “I’m not saying he exercised a freebie on me, but he put me on my guard,” Hobbs said.
And then the governor asked for two other things: “Don’t put any poetry in your opinions,” as some judges are fond of doing. (Hobbs, a published poet, agreed). Second, Romer said, “Go home and get a tie. A real tie.” (Hobbs usually wears a bolo.)[…]
Asked where his abiding interest in water comes from, Hobbs says, simply, “Luck.”
The Environmental Protection Agency and a host of federal air and water quality laws were in their infancy while he was in law school. “I got in on the ground floor of the environmental decade,” he said.
After San Francisco, Colorado beckoned again, and Hobbs wound up at the EPA, working on air quality issues for three states. What he learned from that experience, he said, was that the “front-line attorneys” on the air quality issues worked in the attorney general’s office. The action for a young attorney was with the attorney general, he said.
That’s where he headed next. The department was in the midst of a big reorganization. Prior to 1975, attorneys for each state agency were based within their agencies. The reorganization brought all the attorneys into the attorney general’s office, and Hobbs was asked to take on the natural resources area, including water quality, water rights, and air quality issues…
After serving at the attorney general’s office, Hobbs’ career as the water law expert got its next big push when he joined Davis, Graham and Stubbs in 1979. His biggest client was the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the largest water district in the state. “I never expected to be working for a public entity,” he said. “How could you want for a better water client?”[…]
His first mentor on the high court was Chief Justice Anthony Vollack. “I really lucked out with that,” Hobbs said. Vollack, a former state senator, and a former “member of the club,” was an expert on getting what he wanted from the General Assembly…
He explained the process for voting on a case. Nothing is voted on until all seven justices are ready to vote. Hobbs said if a justice isn’t ready, and needs more time for thinking, writing and forging the best opinion, that justice can ask for a “pass,” and the vote is delayed.
“I‘ve always tried to write for 7-0 but I’m satisfied with 4-3,” he said with a smile.
What stands out on cases? How hard it is, Hobbs said. It’s the avalanche of reading, the travails of writing to expert colleagues, and vetting the writing with the law clerks.
“We think we have a good draft, propose it and six other people have something they want you to consider,” he said, laughing. “We all see it a little bit differently. We’re working with language. Words are the coin of the realm.”
Hobbs, ever the teacher, said good opinions are written in an active voice. “If you can’t take the rule of law and put it in active sentence how can you expect the General Assembly and the clients or lawyers to understand it?”
Every justice writes in every field, Hobbs said. He stands out on water law because he’s practiced it and knows the nuances. “I write more in-depth when I’m writing an opinion. When you write in someone else’s expert field, like criminal law, you tend to be a little more tentative. You have more resonance in a majority opinion if it’s a field you’ve practiced in.”[…]
“My maturation as a justice came in writing water opinions,” Hobbs said. One of the biggest opinions was the Fort Lyons case, which involved 100 miles of canal, and an investor group that bought one-third of the shares of the canal. They went to the water court for a change of use order, but without specifying what the new use would be. “We rediscovered [through that case] that Colorado water law is anti-speculation,” Hobbs noted…
Hobbs, ever the teacher, said it’s no accident that Colorado’s borders form a trapezoid. It was a decision by the Union Congress during the Civil War to make sure the whole of the Continental Divide, and the four major rivers, was in one state. It served as a barrier against the Confederacy and against Kansas, a pro-Confederacy state. Colorado’s borders ended the wagon train routes for the Confederacy to Colorado’s mineral riches, especially gold, Hobbs said.
What’s next for Hobbs? He said he’s talking with the University of Denver and Colorado States University about teaching advanced seminars in water law.
He also hopes to be more involved with the statewide water plan, which released its second draft earlier this week. Hobbs, a member of the education committee for the plan, wants to work on educational outreach…
What he finds interesting these days: in addition to his duties as a Supreme Court Justice, Hobbs serves as vice-president of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, working on the Foundation’s quarterly magazine, Headwaters. It’s been a unique situation, Hobbs said, to be able to teach and write in that way under the judicial canon of ethics.
If you walk around the first floor of the Ralph L. Carr Justice Center with Hobbs, you’ll see another sign of his passion for education, an interactive display with state-of-the-art tools to teach children of all ages about the law. Hobbs delights in showing off the education area, pointing out his favorite sections, asking what visitors know about important decisions in Colorado law. He does all of this with a twinkle in his eye, clearly enjoying the experience of sharing his knowledge.
“There’s always something interesting to do, like working on educational outreach for the water plan, if I can help,” Hobbs said. “Coloradans like a good story.”