Craig Six years after earning a political science degree, Shelley Hill had a job working for the U.S. Department of Energy and an important decision loomed.
“I just knew that I didn’t want to be a Washington bureaucrat for the rest of my life,” said Hill, 60, now a Steamboat Springs resident and 14th Judicial District judge. “I decided to go to law school.”
A legal career wasn’t something Hill was drawn to growing up, she said. Her father spent his career in the U.S. Marine Corps, and Hill, who was born in Beaufort, S.C., frequently moved with her family.
“You name it, we lived there,” she said about her family, which includes her parents and sister.
Hill recalls living in Guam, graduating high school in Rome and attending the American College of Switzerland before deciding to transfer to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where she earned her undergraduate degree.
Then, after years spent toiling for the federal government, Hill decided to pursue a field no one in her family ever had: law.
Hill decided on Vermont Law School in the small town of South Royalton, Vt.
“It was a wonderful law school,” she said. “Just intellectually stimulating and just (had) a lot of good people from all over the country, good professors. It was just a wonderful experience, a great group of people.”
Hill stayed in Vermont after graduation and accepted a job with the Vermont State’s Attorneys office as a deputy state’s attorney or “the equivalent of a district attorney,” she said.
She spent five years in that post and then ran and won a campaign for state’s attorney, becoming only the second female state’s attorney in Vermont history.
“The woman who (was elected before) me was elected in 1950-something,” Hill said. “She was ahead of her time.”
Like law school, Hill’s first job as an attorney helped sharpen her perception of the law and discover areas she enjoyed most.
“I love criminal law,” Hill said. “It’s all constitutional law, and constitutional law is just fascinating.”
Law merges with life
As Hill’s career began to flourish, so too did her personal life.
She met Paul Hughes in 1986 in Windsor, Vt. The couple married a year later, and a few years later, they welcomed their only child, Evan.
Hill also served as bar counsel to the state Supreme Court while living in Vermont, helping monitor and prosecute members of the legal system.
“That also was very fascinating because I basically was the ethics police for the Supreme Court and dealing with attorneys who had either done intentional and purposeful bad conduct or had just gotten burned out,” she said.
“It’s a very effective system, a very important aspect of what the Supreme Court does.”
Hill worked in private practice following her term as state’s attorney, getting her first taste of life on the other side of the courtroom.
In 1998, Hill and her family faced a difficult decision when Hughes was offered a job as city manager in Steamboat Springs.
“I allowed him to take (the job) because Colorado had reciprocity with Vermont, and I didn’t have to take the bar exam again,” she said, laughing.
New state, new challenges
Hill’s first job in Colorado helped familiarize her with a new system.
“The statutes are different and (there’s) different case law, so there was a learning curve,” she said.
She served as magistrate for the 14th Judicial District, hearing mostly domestic cases in Craig and Hot Sulphur Springs.
Hill also said her time as magistrate prepared her to be a judge, a goal she had set when she was a prosecutor in Vermont.
After spending three years working for the Steamboat Springs law firm Klauzer & Tremaine, Hill realized that goal when Gov. Bill Owens appointed her district judge for the 14th Judicial District in 2006.
“Being a prosecutor, you try to achieve justice, and to me, that’s very attractive rather than being a proponent for one side or the other,” she said. “I like to look at an issue and try to do the right thing.”
Like all district judges in Colorado, Hill served two years after being appointed before coming up for retention, when voters decide whether judges should stay on the bench for an additional six-year term.
Voters retained Hill in the 2008 election.
Doug Timmerman, an attorney with the Romney Law Office and husband of a member of the 14th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance, agreed with the commission’s evaluation of Hill, especially when it comes to the tone she sets in her courtroom.
“She’s good at making all parties in her courtroom comfortable, disarming them so there are no nerves, and that’s important,” he said.
He’s also impressed with Hill’s ability to maintain and balance her workload, another area in which the commission gave Hill high marks.
Praise for Hill’s work came from across the courtroom aisle, as well.
Fourteenth Judicial District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham said Hill can be counted on for a fair assessment of any situation.
“She is a woman who has great understanding of the law,” Oldham said. “She is respectful of everyone and intelligent.”
Fourteenth Judicial District Assistant District Attorney Brett Barkey agreed.
“She is a very reasonable jurist who takes all views into consideration,” he said. “She’s an outstanding judge, and we are lucky to have her.”
Barkey, a former active duty Marine who still is in the reserves, said he knows how much Hill’s father’s Marine service means to her and added that she brings the same passion to her service as a judge.
Hill said she always tries to be receptive to those arguing cases in front of her.
“I try to be patient and listen carefully,” she said. “I work very hard. I always am familiar with a case before I go out on the bench, and I’m familiar with the issues that are presented.
“I usually do not rule from the bench because I like to look at the law and the facts before I make a decision. I try my darnedest to do the right thing.”
Hill also has faced challenges while on the bench, many of which stem from cases with no legal precedent.
“You might expect for all of the legal questions to have been answered by now, after all this time, by the appellate courts, but they’re not,” she said. “It’s not so easy when you have a case of first impression to decide the outcome because you know the appellate courts are going to be looking at it.”
Hill gave a direct answer when asked about her goals for the future: retention.
“I’m extremely happy with what I’m doing,” she said. “We’ll see if the electorate agrees in 2014,” when Hill is up for retention.
“I just come to work every day trying to do the best job I can and maintaining my fairness and my impartiality and my integrity to try and represent the judicial system the best I can.”