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TCL > July 2012 Issue > Aurel M. Kelly (1923–2000)

July 2012       Vol. 41, No. 7       Page  43
Six of the Greatest

Aurel M. Kelly (1923–2000)
by Diane Vaksdal Smith

About the Author

Diane Vaksdal Smith is a shareholder at Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine, P.C., in Englewood. Her practice emphasizes employment and appellate litigation.


In 1974, Colorado had no women appellate judges. That changed when Governor John D. Vanderhoof appointed Aurel Maxey Kelly to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

I met Judge Kelly in the spring of 1982. I was a first-year law student in the University of Denver’s research and writing program and she was my review judge—my first contact with any judge in Colorado. Little did I know that Judge Kelly had made a career of firsts, thus opening doors for generations of female attorneys and judges.

It could have been a disastrous meeting, considering how little I knew about the law and legal writing, but it turned out to be an important milestone in my development as a lawyer. On that day, she took nearly an hour to speak with me. She not only addressed my research and writing project, but also spoke candidly to me about what it takes to be a woman and a practicing attorney.

Later, we became friends; it was a relationship that continued until her death in 2000. I will never forget how generously she shared her time and her experiences with me and with everyone who had the pleasure and the privilege to work with her.1


  Tom Kelly and Aurel Maxey
were married in 1943.

Aurel Maxey was born in Cleveland, Ohio on April 24, 1923, to Chester and Elnora Maxey. Her father moved the family back to Walla Walla, Washington in 1925, when he became the Miles C. Moore Professor of Political Science at Whitman College.2 Aurel entered Whitman College at age 16 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science at age 20. She would continue her commitment to Whitman College after she was elected to sit on its Board of Directors, a cause she remained devoted to for many years.

She met Tom Kelly while attending Whitman. He started his education there in 1939, after his initial service in the U.S. Navy. When World War II broke out, Tom left Whitman to serve as a naval aviator, and saw combat in Africa and England.3 When he returned to the United States, Aurel skipped her college graduation ceremony to take the train to Jacksonville, Florida, where she and Tom married on May 29, 1943. They stayed married for fifty-six years, until Tom’s death in the spring of 2000.

Rather than return to Washington, Aurel went on to Columbia Law School in New York. According to Aurel, chance dictated her choice of profession.4 She originally had intended to get her doctorate in political science, like her father, but she visited the law school first and was offered a full scholarship to attend. She accepted the offer and received her LLB in February 1947. Tom joined her in New York following the war and also attended Columbia. After finishing law school, Aurel took a position working for the Mutual Broadcasting Company in New York, where her job was to ferret out potentially libelous materials in scripts.5 She also worked for the Baker Voorhis legal publishing firm.6 Tom and Aurel left New York in the fall of 1948 and headed west to Seattle to prepare to take the Washington state bar exam.

Aurel’s older daughter, Shannon, was born in New York just before Tom graduated from Columbia Law School. Her second daughter, Keven, arrived after Aurel and Tom returned to Washington. In later years, after I became a parent, I asked Judge Kelly what she thought I should know as a working mother. She told me the most important thing was to listen when the child was ready to talk, even if it was at 2:00 a.m., because communication happens on the child’s timeline, not the parent’s.

Early Legal Career

In the 1940s and ’50s, very few women practiced law. When Aurel returned to the Walla Walla area, she was the only female attorney in the area and none of the law firms would hire her. The exclusion from the "good old boys’ club" hurt her deeply, because it had nothing to do with her ability and everything to do with her gender. During speeches she gave to various women’s clubs, Aurel told other women that "a woman in any profession preponderantly male must rely on ability and ambition to get ahead," because being a woman was nothing but a limitation.7 Aurel would fight that limitation throughout career.

When she couldn’t find a job in an established firm, she and Tom opened Kelly and Kelly, where Aurel practiced in the fields of domestic relations and juvenile law. She didn’t plan that part of her career. She would later say that everyone expected women to be naturally skilled in those disciplines, so that’s what she did.8

Early in her career, Aurel decided to run for Justice of the Peace against incumbent W.W. Switzer.9 Her slogan was "Legal Training for a Legal Position."10 She didn’t win that election, but that didn’t end her desire to hold public office. In 1954, Aurel decided to take a run at the office of Prosecuting Attorney for Pasco, Washington. She conducted a door-to-door campaign, meeting frequently with women’s clubs to talk about what she could bring to the office. She proved so effective that her opponent promised her a job as a deputy if she would just stop campaigning against him. She accepted that offer and became the first deputy prosecuting attorney on February 25, 1955. She prosecuted criminal cases until mid-1956, when she resigned her position.

After leaving the prosecuting attorney’s office, she again ran for Justice of the Peace and won the election on September 11, 1956. In those days, Justices of the Peace handled municipal criminal matters and some civil issues. Her daughter Keven remembers going to court one day with her cousin Denise. When they began giggling and generally disrupted the proceedings, the judge ordered the girls to separate and sit in opposite corners of the room. According to Keven, Judge Kelly never once hinted to anyone in the courtroom that it was her mother speaking.

Coming to Colorado

The Kelly family moved to Colorado in 1960 when Tom got a position with the U.S. Small Business Administration. Unfortunately, he lost that position when John F. Kennedy became President. (At that time, government jobs were political hires.) In the meantime, Aurel worked as a secretary for a local attorney while studying for the Colorado bar exam, which she passed in 1961. Once again, unable to find a position with an established law firm, Aurel and Tom opened Kelly and Kelly in Arvada. In later years, when things were slow in the office, she went through files to find old judgments she could collect.

Even during less lucrative times, though, or when clients were few, Aurel didn’t take every case that came along. She would later tell her clerks and others that when a couple came in seeking a divorce, she would sit them down to calculate their finances. In many cases, she told them: "You can’t afford a divorce. Go home and patch it up." We will never know whether that saved any marriages, but I’m betting at least a few made a go of it because she told them to.

In the mid-1960s, Aurel’s daughters headed off to college. When Shannon left for school, Aurel took on contact work for the Colorado Attorney General’s office to help with the college expenses. When Keven began considering her options for college in 1968, Aurel accepted the offer of a full-time position from Colorado Attorney General Duke W. Dunbar as an associate attorney. She moved into an office in the State Capitol Building. From that point, she tried cases and handled appeals in both federal and state court. Then, in October 1971, Dunbar appointed her as deputy in charge of criminal cases handled by the Attorney General’s Office—the first female to assume that position. Judge Kelly revered Duke Dunbar for his actions, saying that he was truly gender blind and rewarded merit when dealing with all of his employees.

During the 1960s, Aurel and Tom bought their home in Arvada and stocked it with books, art, and music. They also raised their family. Shannon and Keven remember Aurel making dresses for them and making time to talk on the girls’ schedule. They also learned how Aurel managed to get everything done: she lived by a firm schedule. She got up early, often at 4:00 a.m., to garden or take care of other matters around the house. She worked a full day and everyone knew that dinner would be served promptly at 6:00 p.m.

Judge Aurel Kelly of the Colorado Court of Appeals

On July 1, 1974, Aurel Kelly became the first female judge appointed to a Colorado appellate court when the Colorado Court of Appeals expanded from six judges to ten. Governor Vanderhoof appointed Judges Norman Berman, Aurel Kelly, Alan Sternberg, and Edwin Van Cise. Judge Kelly referred to herself as one of the "new judges," even after she had been on the bench for many years.

Rocky Mountain News front page, July 23, 1974.

Judge Alan Sternberg remembers that when they were appointed, the "new" Supreme Court building at 14th and Broadway was under construction. (It is now the site of the Ralph Carr Judicial Center.) According to Judge Sternberg, the so-called "senior" judges picked offices on the south side of the building, which had great views of Pike’s Peak and Colorado Springs— great views, that is, until developers constructed a very large building to the south and blocked out all views (but did not block the hot sun). Aurel and Judge Sternberg took neighboring offices facing north, with views of Civic Center Park and downtown, and made a pact not to let the senior judges pull rank and take the offices away from them. Judge Kelly remained in that office until she was appointed Chief Judge and moved to the Chief Judge’s chambers on the south side of the building.

While on the court of appeals, Judge Kelly had the reputation of being an extraordinary writer who loved the English language. She favored short, tightly crafted opinions. Her opinions often were used as a training tool for the law clerks who worked at the court of appeals. She expected her law clerks to learn how to analyze and write opinions without relying on paper. Her clerks had to construct opinions paragraph by paragraph and dictate from their thoughts, not from a draft written on a legal pad. Shannon tells me she took this teaching approach with her daughters, as well, which put them both ahead of their peers in English class.

Other judges Aurel served with, including retired court of appeals Judge John Criswell and current federal district court Judge Lewis T. Babcock, remember Judge Kelly as an excellent judge who applied a rigorous approach to resolving appeals. She was an expert in criminal law, as a result of working for the Attorney General’s office, but she never shied away from learning the law necessary to resolve any of the cases she handled. Judge Babcock recalls that Judge Kelly was never reticent to question or critique drafts, and that the opinions were always stronger for her input.

  "Do not take thyself too seriously." Judge Kelly came to work one Halloween dressed as a bag lady.

Others who worked with her remember her sense of humor. One of her favorite sayings was "Do not take thyself too seriously," and she lived by that saying. One year, her office decided to have a Halloween costume contest. Without telling her staff she was going to participate, she showed up in the office as a "bag lady" in full attire and makeup—including a bag. She won the contest. Sonja "Sunnie" Blomquist, one of her law clerks, remembers her saying, "If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the facts and law are against you, wear a red dress!" She spoke at my swearing-in ceremony, in October of 1984, and quoted Yogi Berra to us new lawyers: "You can observe a lot by just watching."11

Those who knew her well tell me that Judge Kelly liked to keep mementos from closed cases before destruction of the case files. Those familiar with Good v. A. B. Chance Co.,12 which involved a wrongful death of a worker caused by a defective lift, might be surprised to know that when that case was concluded, Judge Kelly kept the screw that had led to the accident. If you looked closely at the shelves in her chambers, you would see the screw displayed with other items of interest from certain cases.

In those years on the court of appeals, Judge Kelly struggled with a number of health issues. She suffered from arthritis, Meniere’s disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which ultimately made it difficult for her to enjoy time in the Colorado Rockies. However, in earlier years, the Kelly family spent many vacations camping in the mountains because they could not afford lavish vacations. As long as she could go, Aurel would pack up her books (usually nonfiction) and, wearing a cowboy hat, she would sit near the campfire and read. They continued camping until health issues for Tom and Aurel finally made it too difficult.

Chief Judge Kelly

On March 1, 1988, Judge Kelly became the first female Chief Judge of the Colorado Court of Appeals, appointed to the position by Chief Justice Joseph Quinn. She brought with her the view that courts had to be efficient and provide prompt resolution of cases for litigants. Shortly after her appointment, she met with representatives of the Colorado Court Reporters Association about improving the time to get transcripts completed and filed so that cases could move forward.13 She felt deeply that the system needed to meet the needs of litigants expeditiously. If those needs could not be met, then the system needed to change—and she would be the one to change it.

Retirement (But Not Really)

Judge Kelly retired from the court of appeals in 1990. I thought she might take the time to garden or to be with her family and friends; I should have known better. In 1991, Governor Roy Romer appointed her to the newly created Colorado Gaming Commission. Her colleagues later elected her to become the first chair of the Commission. Ironically, Judge Kelly originally voted against allowing gambling in Colorado. By the time she retired from the Gaming Commission in 1994, she had changed her mind and felt gambling was a good thing for Colorado’s economy. She shepherded the fledgling commission through the first years of growth in Colorado. Her time on the Gaming Commission led to her last professional engagement as an expert witness in an Australian gaming case, which took her to Australia to testify.

Final Years

In the early 1990s, Tom suffered a mini stroke, and Aurel cared for him at home with the help of in-home assisted living. While he was convalescing, she spent time doing the things she loved. She read voraciously and taught herself to knit, needlepoint, and play the guitar. She played with Sweetie Face, her St. Bernard, one of many in a long line of dogs. She continued to wake early, go out in the morning hours to care for her garden—especially her roses—and walk the dog. She spent many hours birding, often traveling to the Pawnee Grasslands or the Rocky Mountain Arsenal to watch the raptors, and participated in the annual Audubon Society bird count.

Aurel and Tom Kelly, 1989. They were married fifty-six years.

She also took Spanish lessons and religiously practiced her Spanish-speaking skills. During one of her Spanish classes, she befriended one of her teachers, who was from Chili. This prompted an invitation to visit Chili, which she accepted.

She also spent a great deal of her time on her many artistic interests. She played piano, refusing to let her arthritis stop her. She attended the Central City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Opera Colorado. She had season tickets to the Shakespeare Festival at the outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Aurel was devoted to her four grandchildren—Trent, Kelby, Nick, and Kayla. When she retired, she had more opportunities to watch the grandchildren’s football games, color-guard competitions, and recitals. She also helped them learn to drive. Judge Kelly loved the Rockies baseball team. For years, she had a poster of Dante Bichette on her garage wall, where she could see it every day when she got home. When her grandson Nick was in town, she would go to Rockies games with him.

Tom passed away on April 2, 2000. Aurel died shortly thereafter, on November 10, 2000. She was 77.

Chief Judge Kelly’s Legacy

In one respect, Judge Kelly’s legacy is obvious. She broke down barriers for women in the law through her career of firsts, earned through hard work and tenacity. In another, her legacy is difficult to articulate, because she was quietly dedicated to her work and she was innately humble. Judge Kelly was a soft-spoken and reserved woman, never one to brag about the things she had done.

When I prepared this article, I spoke with some of her law clerks who worked for her while at the court of appeals. Donald Alperstein described Judge Kelly as "the most intellectually honest person" he had ever met. Sunnie Blomquist described her as "dignified, funny, kind, brilliant, savvy, fair, strong, and collegial." Both spoke about her wisdom and unswerving allegiance to the rule of law and the influence she had on their careers as attorneys.

Perhaps her legacy, then, may best be found in the later generations of lawyers she influenced. We continue to pass on the wisdom she so freely shared.


1. My thanks go out to those who helped me locate information about Judge Kelly and who shared their personal experiences with me. They include Judge Kelly’s daughters, Shannon Kelly Kaufman and Keven Kelly Troutman; Judge Lewis T. Babcock, Judge John Criswell, and Judge Alan Sternberg, who served with her on the Colorado Court of Appeals; and Donald Alperstein and Sonja Blomquist, two of her law clerks.

2. "Influential College Teachers," The Whitman College Newspaper Online (March 2000), available at

3. Walla Walla Union Bulletin (Sept. 8, 1957).

4. "Entre Nous Club Hears Mrs. Kelly," Walla Walla Union Bulletin (May 24, 1956).

5. Walla Walla Union Bulletin (Feb. 23, 1947).

6. "Matron Files for J.P. Post," Walla Walla Union Bulletin (July 18, 1950).

7. Id. at note 4.

8. Id.

9. Id. at note 6.

10. Walla Walla Union Bulletin (Sept. 8, 1950).

11. "Speech by Judge Aurel M. Kelly To New Bar Admittees, October 30, 1984," 14 The Colorado Lawyer 21 (Jan. 1985).

12. Good v. A. B. Chance Co., 565 P.2d 217 (Colo.App. 1977).

13. Ramblings, Newsletter of the Colorado Court Reporters Association (Oct. 1988).

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