Vol. 33, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
Robert B. Lee
by Edward B. Lee
Robert B. Lee
by Edward B. Lee
Ed Lee is a private practitioner in the Denver Tech Center and the son of Robert B. Lee. Special thanks are given to his mother and the Hon. Jim R. Carrigan, both of whom contributed greatly to this article.
His former colleague, retired U.S. District Court Judge Jim R. Carrigan, stated, "I have been privileged to meet thousands of fine lawyers. Justice Robert B. Lee is without doubt clearly one of the few greatest."1 The late Chief Justice Paul V. Hodges, with whom Justice Lee served for many years, said shortly after Lee’s death in 1988, "Justice Lee was regarded by all as one of the outstanding trial judges in Colorado and a scholarly and dedicated member of the Supreme Court. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him—a man of compassion and dignity and a true friend."2
Upon his retirement from the Colorado Supreme Court on January 11, 1983, former Chief Justice Robert H. McWilliams, then a Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, described Bob Lee as "a brilliant scholar, a hard worker, and a congenial colleague who contributed greatly to the court system, and who is very highly regarded by all."3 On the same occasion, retired Chief Justice Edward E. Pringle, who served with Lee for more than a decade, stated: "To me, Bob Lee stands as a stalwart example of what the judicial process is all about in this country. His career exemplifies the courage and strength to put the law, as it is written, before his personal views of how he would like the law to be."4
Born in South Bend in 1912, Bob Lee spent his early years in Indiana, where his family owned a retail paint business. After graduation from high school, he attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, from which he graduated in 1935. While there, he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, as well as Blue Key. He was a star on both the varsity basketball and track teams. In fact, he held the school record from 1935 until the mid-1960s for the 120-yard high hurdles.
After graduation, Bob started law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he had to transfer to Notre Dame, which was in his hometown. He graduated in 1940, magna cum laude, and moved to Colorado after passing the Indiana Bar examination.
Private Practice in
After passing the Colorado Bar examination, Lee began private practice in Littleton in 1941. Upon arriving in Colorado, he was re-introduced to Ruth Wade, who also had attended DePauw after being raised in south Denver. They married on September 27, 1941, had four children, and remained married until Bob Lee’s death in 1988. Ruth and three of the four children are still living, and all continue to reside in Colorado. Ruth was Bob’s legal secretary in his early years in Littleton. Ruth’s devotion, love, and constant support for more than forty-six years enabled Bob Lee to devote as much time as he did to the law and the judiciary.
Bob was a Deputy District Attorney for Arapahoe County for six years in the 1940s in Littleton. His picture was once in a publication called Official Detective Magazine, which featured his prosecution of a then well-publicized murder case. He was a member of the American Bar Association and became president of the Eighteenth Judicial District Bar Association ("18th J.D.") while in private practice in Arapahoe County. After his short career as a deputy district attorney, he went into private practice in Englewood in about 1948. His partners while practicing in Englewood were Dick Simon, Marc Shivers (who later became a District Court Judge in Littleton), and Dick Banta, all now deceased. He was active in the Englewood Lions Club, Elks, and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. He became a 32nd Degree Mason and was on the Englewood Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
The District Bench
Bob Lee’s judicial career began in 1961 when he was elected as a District Court Judge of the 18th J.D. in November 1980. He served on the District Court bench until January 1969, having been reelected in 1966. While on the District Court bench, the caseload of the district tripled but, as stated in the Supreme Court Chambers upon his 1983 retirement:
In spite of the increased caseload, Judge Lee always exhibited patience and extended courtesy to the parties and their attorneys who appeared before him. No lawyer ever feared to appear before Judge Lee. . . . [H]e was always considerate and understanding in his dealings with attorneys. As a trial judge, he demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the case at hand and his judgments exhibited a wisdom that invariably indicated that the litigants had received a fair and impartial consideration of their case.5
Lee became an active member of the American Judicature Society while on the trial court bench.
Judge Lee became Justice Lee in January 1969 after Governor John Love made Lee his second appointment under the (then) new merit selection system. He served in this capacity until his retirement in January 1983. He attended an Appellate Judges Seminar in 1971 at New York University School of Law and became an honorary member of the Order of the Coif in 1975. Justice Lee "researched thoroughly and personally wrote every word of his opinions. He was a careful, thoughtful craftsman"6 and always kept "in mind how his words might impact the law in the future."7
At his retirement ceremony, Justice William Erickson said, "In well over 500 opinions authored by Justice Lee . . . he . . . displayed a steadfast adherence to established principles of law and . . . demonstrated the courage to adhere to them. . . ."8 More than one of his opinions were selected by the publishers of American Law Reports ("ALR") as leading cases for the subject matter of annotations dealing with various legal principles; many more opinions authored by him have been widely cited and relied on by state and federal appellate courts.9
Justice Lee was a man of few words—he’d rather listen than talk. His words were wisely chosen. He enjoyed hearing oral arguments, but never interrupted counsel.
California Rural Legal
Assistance ("CRLA") Hearings
While on the Colorado Supreme Court, Bob Lee was appointed by President Richard Nixon as one of three state court Justices (the others were the Chief Justices of the New Hampshire and Wisconsin Supreme Courts) to hear, adjudicate, and report to the President on then-Governor Reagan’s veto of the CRLA program and to recommend to President Nixon whether he should overrule Governor Reagan.
Several months were spent by the three Justices traveling in California with their co-counsel. Each of the three Justices selected a lawyer to serve as co-counsel to the Commission. Justice Lee selected Jim Carrigan. Following the hearings, the three Justices concluded that the numerous charges brought against the forty-four CRLA lawyers were unfounded, and California’s groundbreaking CRLA program was saved.10
Moot Court Judging
While on the District Court bench, Bob Lee and Judge Marvin W. Foote, who sat on the Arapahoe County bench with him, became adjunct professors at the University of Colorado School of Law. They conducted practice trials and critiqued the law students’ performances. Bob (and Judge Foote) diligently drove to and from Littleton to Boulder one evening a week each semester for several years to help the students begin learning the art of trial advocacy.
Justice Lee served diligently during his long judicial tenure as ex-officio chairman of various judicial nominating commissions (forty-six to be exact). He spent countless hours interviewing and screening applicants for judicial office. He also served on advisory committees to the Legislative Council of the state of Colorado, one of which involved the creation of the Colorado Court of Appeals. He was the first chairman of the Commission on Judicial Qualifications.
Perhaps the most significant of his extra service to the Bar and the Judiciary was his service for many years on the Colorado Supreme Court’s Committee on Civil Jury Instructions. While on the Committee, he helped formulate pattern Civil Jury Instructions for use by practitioners statewide in jury trials.11
Bob Lee was very proud of his numerous law clerks (and the law clerks of the other Justices) who interned while he served on the Supreme Court. Many have become distinguished judges themselves. They include Paul Markson, Steve Pelican, David Bottger, and Robert Clark.
The Sixty-Day Program
After retiring from the Supreme Court in 1983, Justice Lee entered the retired judge’s program, agreeing to serve sixty or more days per year when and where needed, for a modest increase in his retirement pay. He was able to travel the state with his faithful companion and wife Ruth and assist various courts, from Alamosa to Grand Junction, with their dockets. He continued on the sixty-day program, which allowed him to fill in at any court in the state. He also sat on the Court of Appeals during this time, and handled some arbitration work as well, until his final illness.
Memorial Golf Tournament
Shortly after his death, the Arapahoe County Bar Association ("ACBA"), which has conducted a golf tournament as part of its annual meeting for years, named its tournament in honor of Justice Bob Lee. In June 2004, the ACBA held its seventeenth annual Robert B. Lee Memorial Golf Tournament. Bob never missed an ACBA tournament and occasionally won the Judge’s Division, particularly in those years when he was the only judge entered. For many years, he and Justice Paul Hodges played in the same foursome, and they always had a wonderful time.
Vacations to Marble
To get away from the pressure of his profession, Bob and Ruth, sometimes with family and friends, would spend short periods of time in Marble, Colorado, in a small, old cabin they bought in 1955. In fact, Judge Lee learned of his appointment to the Supreme Court while getting a haircut in a small town on the Western Slope on one of his vacations to the Marble area. The trip to the cabin from Englewood was long, but worth it—no I-70 and no Eisenhower Tunnel back then. Eventually, the Lees sold the Marble cabin and bought another on the Crystal River above Redstone.
Bob loved fly-fishing and would drive his jeep all over the area, entertaining his guests and scaring to death several of them when negotiating the precarious terrain above Marble. Lead King Basin, above Crystal City, was one of the family’s favorite areas. Bob and Ruth spent more and more time in the Redstone area as the years passed.
Justice Lee had "mild-mannered humaneness, and a unique brand of kindness and compassion."12 As summed up by Judge Jim Carrigan, his
predominant characteristics were total integrity, patience, kindness, a strong work ethic and an ever present sense of humor evidenced by a glint in his eye and a winning smile.13
1. Letter to Colorado Bar Association dated January 20, 2004, from Hon. Jim R. Carrigan.
2. Colorado Courts (Denver, CO: State Judicial Dept., June 1988).
3. Id. (Dec. 1982).
5. Remarks presented at Justice Lee’s retirement from the Colorado Supreme Court on January 11, 1983, by Justice William H. Erickson. Justice William D. Neighbors was sworn in on that date to replace Justice Lee.
6. Supra, note 1.
8. Supra, note 5.
9. Paraphrased from remarks at Justice Lee’s retirement ceremony, supra, note 5.
10. Paraphrased from Justice Carrigan’s letter, supra, note 1.
11. "One needs only to compare Colorado’s pattern jury instructions with the practice in other states to understand how far advanced Colorado Courts are in this area," supra, note 5.
12. Supra, note 5.
13. Supra, note 1.
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