Becky Kourlis’ goal is to make the legal system more accessible and user-friendly. Her biography reads like something out of a novel — highly respected lawyer and judge, civic-minded volunteer, civil and human rights advocate, devoted wife and mother. Did we fail to mention she was recently declared a viable candidate to sit on the United States Supreme Court? These then are the many facets of Rebecca (Becky) Love Kourlis, a native Coloradan who is driven by a single credo: to make a difference in the lives of others. The daughter of one of Colorado’s most eminent governors, John A. Love, who governed from 1963 to 1973, Kourlis leads by example and recently opted out of public service to begin a new chapter in her remarkable career. In January 2006, Kourlis resigned her position as a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court to launch the nation’s first institute devoted exclusively to revamping the legal system. Her overriding goal is to make the legal process — on both the local and federal levels — more user-friendly and accessible.
As head of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, Kourlis has amassed an impressive lineup of consultants to help her accomplish her daunting goals. Listening to her expand on her vision, it quickly becomes clear that if anyone can get the job done, it’s Kourlis. To understand her passion for redesigning an entire legal system, you have to go back to the beginning. After graduating from high school in Denver, Kourlis received her undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University. In the interim, she interned one summer in Washington, D.C., the same summer that Watergate unfolded. “I understood then that knowing the legal system was vital, because that system could be perverted and twisted. I decided I wanted to go to law school to understand how the system worked, and it was then I first thought about one day becoming a judge,” she says.Growing up in one of Colorado’s best-known political families, it seemed fitting that Kourlis would pick law as her chosen line of work. “The influence my father had on me really stems from what my husband refers to as my ‘public service gene,’” she says. “In fact, my husband caught the gene by osmosis by marrying me.
My parents nurtured that gene in the sense of an abiding sense of societal obligation. We were always taught that the most important thing we could accomplish would be to leave the world a better place than we found it.” Kourlis calls her mother, Ann Love, a huge influence in her life. “Mom was the quintessential volunteer, and she gave her energy and heart to all areas she encountered. Although she never said so, it was clear that the way she judged a person was based in part on what they did for their community,” she reflects. After law school, Kourlis returned to Denver to work for the prominent law firm Davis Graham & Stubbs. During that time, she reconnected with a childhood acquaintance, Tom Kourlis, who was helping run his family’s ranch. The two married in 1978 and moved to Craig, Colorado, where she opened a law practice on Main Street, handling divorces, wills, traffic tickets, the works. In 1987, Kourlis was appointed to the trial court bench for the northwest quadrant of the state, an area that included Moffatt and Routt Counties. As a trial court judge, her work focused on all aspects of rural court — probate, water, rape and complex criminal litigation, to name but a few. For both the rancher and the small-town lawyer, shared goals and common interests were inherently intertwined. Several years ago, while practicing natural resource law in Craig, Kourlis and her husband joined forces to win a court case that pitted the Kourlis family ranch against a large oil company. Not surprisingly, the couple prevailed.
In 1995, Kourlis was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court, a position she held until January of this year. Two years following her appointment, husband Tom was appointed Secretary of Agriculture under then-Gov. Roy Romer. Kourlis professes a love of her profession that runs deep. “I especially liked working at the trial court level in terms of the day-to-day job satisfaction, because I like dealing with people and being in the position where I can hope to make a difference in their lives. As a trial court judge, you can have a strong impact when you help people make use of the system,” she says. “There’s a judge in Hawaii who refers to the court’s ability to visit ‘juragenic harm,’ which is harm imposed by the court system itself. My focus has always been on helping people by making the system work better,” she continues. “Even at the Supreme Court level, I was involved in trying to revise the divorce process, the jury system and the attorney system. I’m an absolute believer that the system cannot be attorney-centered, with all the focus being taken away from the best interests of the clients.” Starting with the premise that the system has become so convoluted that most people cannot see through the mire, Kourlis was able to convince others of the need to streamline the entire legal process, with the ultimate goal of making the system more efficient and effective. “Particularly in family cases, these should be removed from an adversary court and put in a friendlier, more compassionate setting. The adversary court system was really designed for criminal cases, where facts are presented and decisions are based on those facts,” she explains. “But when you transfer this to a family setting, where you have people with long-standing relationships, everything is based on family dynamics rather than facts. So we need to ask, should we get this out of the court system or develop a system that is much more attuned to the needs of the children and adults whose lives are involved?”
Kourlis says that across the nation family disputes are handled in such a way that often the needs of the people are largely ignored. “Right now, the system is backward. We’ve created an area that values process over outcome,” she says. Taking a cue from other countries, she believes that by removing disputes from the courtroom setting and placing such momentous decisions in the hands of qualified therapists and experts, everyone will win. Then, if parties still cannot come to agreement, an arbiter can step in to help achieve finality for the family. The same type of process occurs in other areas, such as the commercial litigation setting, she says: “People spend millions of dollars on discovery, and it becomes a contest to see who can wear who down first, and who has the most time to spend on the process. It’s just not working, and as a nation, we need to think about how we can redesign the system to serve the people.” By year-end or early in 2007, Kourlis hopes to achieve implementation of some of the Institute’s recommendations and then hopes to find a state court system that will implement some of the new rules in a pilot project. Measurement tools will determine their effectiveness, and gradually new procedures can be expanded into federal rule making. The intricacies and extensive time involved in Kourlis’ endeavors are in no way impeding the quality of her family life. As the mother of two daughters — Stacie, 22, and Kate, 20, and a son, Tommy, 9 — Kourlis readily admits that achieving balance in her home life is not always easy. “It’s an issue I’ve struggled with for more than 30 years, and I have two thoughts on the subject,” she says. “First, I think it’s so individual, and every person must find that balance for his or her self. It changes, based on the needs of your spouse, kids or one’s self. It’s never static.
“Second, there’s no way I’d be doing what I’m doing today if not for a very supportive husband. He’s given me the opportunity to be a wife and mom, but still be a full-tilt professional. He’s always communicated how important it is to be the best you can be. Then you can work out the details, which are so important,” she says. Kourlis and her husband have worked tirelessly to pass these life lessons on to their children. “A few years ago, Tom and I talked about this platitude, where we all say we want our kids to be happy. But how do you define happiness? I want them to be challenged, to reach inside themselves and to give the best back to their world. I’ve tried to teach my children to follow their hearts and to do with their lives what feels right and true. If that means becoming deeply involved in their chosen profession, that’s wonderful. If it means becoming deeply involved in marriage and family, that’s also wonderful. Whatever they do, so long as it’s not superimposed on them by someone else, is what’s important,” she says. Kourlis pauses for a moment to reflect on a childhood memory that she says forever shaped her future: “I was 10 years old, and I watched The Sound of Music. I loved Julie Andrews, and there was a verse from the song Climb Every Mountain that touched me profoundly. It goes, ‘A dream that will need all the love you can give, every day of your life for as long as you live.’ The dream is different for everyone, but it’s important to follow that dream.”
Today her dream is a far cry from the courtroom and the bench. Yet it took those life experiences to get her where she is today. “I took this on for a variety of reasons,” she explains. “I did this because both my family and I had become a little tired of the constraints that are imposed from being a judge. There are numerous political and social constraints, and it even affected my husband’s business to a degree. And too, it was a decision that played to my passion of wanting to improve the system and turn it into a positive.” In the end, Kourlis credits her husband with giving her the courage to enter uncharted waters and attempt to alter the way the legal community does business. She explains, “My husband fostered in me the need to take a hard look at the system and how it works, and how I could help to make it better. He has a very acute business and systems sense, and he has been my partner in all of these efforts. So whereas my father was more of a visionary, my husband has encouraged me to look less at the end result and to focus more on the mechanics of how to achieve it. From Tom I’ve learned that it’s wonderful to have big ideas, but that’s all they’ll be unless you have the tools and methods to implement them.”
The bond that exists between Kourlis and her husband is largely the result of the environment in which Tom was raised. “I married into a large Greek family, and growing into adulthood in that family has taught me a lot about interdependency and about being a unit,” she says. It’s all about being able to help each other and call on each other when needed. This family tie is even more pronounced in husband Tom’s ranching background. “The ranching community is very even-handed in its treatment of men and women,” Kourlis says. “It has to do with capacity and competence, so if you can do something well, it doesn’t matter your gender. It’s very liberating, and it’s an environment where what gets done depends entirely on who puts their shoulder to the wheel and does it. It’s not about roles, it’s about the end of the day — did we accomplish what we needed to do?” she explains. Along those lines, the family is at the center of everything. From there, it’s a function of how the whole family unit can thrive and succeed. “In the end, success is when all of us are doing well, not just one individual, but the entire group,” she says.
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography STEVE GROER