Legal Legends: Rovira Reflects on a Lifetime of Legal Feats
by Natalie Lucas
Born on Sept. 8, 1923, in Manhattan, Rovira knew he wanted to be a lawyer when he was 12 years old. He remembers his mother always telling him, “Sonny, stop talking so much.”
His path to becoming a lawyer was not without obstacles. Rovira was 18 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, pulling the United States into World War II. He joined the Army Reserve in 1942, and after completing training, was sent overseas, fighting with the 102nd Infantry Division in France, Holland, and Germany. He served with occupation forces until December 1945.
Before the war, Rovira had visited Boulder. He remembers thinking during the war that, if he got out alive, he wanted to live his life there.
When he returned to the United States, Rovira said the G.I. Bill made it possible for him to attend the University of Colorado. At the time, students needed only three years of undergraduate courses and three years of law school to become a practicing attorney.
Rovira went on to practice law for more than 25 years, saying he was an attorney long before specializations. “One day I would be writing a will and the next I would be trying a case,” he said, adding, “in those days you actually tried cases.”
When asked about his most memorable cases as an attorney, Rovira said, “When I think of all the big money cases I tried as a lawyer, I forget the details.” One of his most evocative cases was one he took for free as a law student in 1951. At the time, law students were then able to practice in the Justices of the Peace Court.
Although most now recognize Boulder as a liberal community, at the time, some barber shops would not provide services to African Americans. Rovira took the case of one African American man, Edward Johnson, who was refused service by the Buff Barber Shop.
Although the case ended in a mistrial, it was a catalyst for social change. University students protested the barber shops, causing the shops to change their policies. “We won the case by losing,” Rovira said.
Love and Politics
Rovira spent most of his young life as a Republican. Although he would later change his affiliation to Independent, the Republican Party benefited him in one respect. While attending the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco as a Nelson Rockefeller delegate, which he remembers as the “Goldwater Year,” he met a charming University of California–Berkley graduate student. Rovira said with a smile, “She picked me up.”
Rovira and Lois Ann Thau wed in 1966. They have two children and four grandchildren. He is especially proud of his three granddaughters, who attend school at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Colorado.
Called to the Bench
Rovira went on to become a distinguished member of the Colorado judiciary. He was appointed to serve as a district court judge by Gov. Richard (Dick) Lamm in 1976.
At the time, judges made such a small salary that Rovira said, “When Lamm called Lois Ann to tell her the news, he also told her, ‘You better learn how to sew.’”
Rovira was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court in 1979. “The Governor was not satisfied with making one mistake,” Rovira joked. He served as a Colorado Supreme Court Justice from 1979 to 1990, and was Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court from 1990 to 1995.
His most memorable case on the Colorado Supreme Court was the Amendment 2 case, Romer v. Evans, in 1994. The amendment, which was approved by Colorado voters in 1992, prohibited state and local governments from passing laws protecting lesbians and gays. Rovira decided he would “take the heat,” and author the opinion, because he would be retiring soon. The opinion went up to the U.S. Supreme Court and was affirmed by Justice Kennedy, with Justice Scalia authoring the dissent. Although pleased with the decision, Rovira found Scalia’s dissent stronger than Kennedy’s majority opinion.
During his time as a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court, Rovira authored 400 majority opinions and 100 dissenting opinions.
Not only has he had a distinguished legal career, but Rovira has served the legal and local communities. He is a longstanding member of the Denver, Colorado, and American Bar Associations. He remains active in the DBA’s Seniors Committee.
Rovira also serves as a trustee for the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, which was established by Temple “Sandy” Buell in 1962. The Buell Foundation’s mission is to establish educational programs for young children. Rovira has found this experience very rewarding, and encourages all attorneys to give back to the community.
Turning 88 has not slowed down Rovira. He continues to serve as a Senior Justice for the Colorado Court of Appeals and provides mediation and arbitration services through the Judicial Arbiter Group and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. “I don’t play golf or bridge and I don’t build cuckoo clocks; what else am I going to do?”
His advice to lawyers trying to balance career and life is simple: “Decide how you are going to live, and stick to it.” D