“Having a woman finally serve on the Supreme Court was a significant moment in our state’s history.” Marilyn Kite

Justice Kite shares her insights as the first female to serve on the Wyoming Supreme Court.

She talks about growing up in Wyoming, her decision to serve on the State's highest court and her hopes that her life story would inspire other women.

Emy diGrappa (00:10):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences, and use stories to explore culture, history and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkWY.org.

Marilyn Kite (00:27):

You know, I practiced law for 20 come years before the idea of being a judge was even in my head.

Emy diGrappa (00:37):

Hello, I'm Emy DiGrappa, and this is What's Your Why? Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question, "Why?" We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What abetter place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for it's incredible landscapes; Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why?

Emy diGrappa (01:23):

Today we're talking to former Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kite. Welcome Justice Kite.

Marilyn Kite (01:29):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (01:30):

What an honor to have you here. And what an honor that you were the first woman to serve on the Wyoming Supreme Court, I'm sure you hear that all the time. Even since then, there's only been, how many woman have followed in your footsteps?

Marilyn Kite (01:44):

One. But I've only been gone about a year. But it is an honor, and it was a great privilege, it was a wonderful job, it's an important job that all five of the Justices have, so I-I felt very honored to be able to serve for the 15 years I was there.

Emy diGrappa (02:00):

And what is your hope for women in the future to be able to serve in politics and in government, and especially as the equality state, we don't have a lot of women serving, and why is that?

Marilyn Kite (02:13):

Ideally, we oughta have half of the public servants be women, they, they represent half of the population, but it's the combination of factors; some women don't enter the legal profession, those that do don't always look at the judiciary as an ultimate goal, at least from the judge's side of things. I can't really speak to the executive or legislative branch, but I definitely would want to see more women serving as judges and you know, that's gonna take a combined effort of both the lawyers and the, the women lawyers as well as the bar itself to be committed to that. We have about almost 50% of the bar membership are women, and about 7% of the judges are women.

Marilyn Kite (02:54):

So it certainly isn't what it should be, and we've had, you know, 120 years to get there. The first... Or more than that 130 years; the first woman judge, Esther Hobart Morris was a judge in in think 1877 or something like, '78, and there wasn't another woman judge until the 1980s when Elizabeth [inaudible 00:03:16] was appointed as a district judge in Fremont County, so that's 130 years that we went without another woman judge. So we got a long ways to go.

Emy diGrappa (03:24):

When you say it's a complicated question, and this is a conversation that I think people have, not just in politics and government, but in women's careers on a whole, that they don't get paid the same as men do, and the idea that they're gonna enter at a different time in their life when they're done raising their children, I mean what is the complication?

Marilyn Kite (03:47):

First of all, it's an individual choice for every woman to what to do with her life. It's undeniable that women are the, you know, they're the child bearers and they are usually the child rearers, although that's changed a lot over the last you know, several decades but it's a complicated thing because in order to get to the position where you qualify to be a judge, you have to practice law for a certain amount of time, and that's a demanding profession. It's hard to do with a family, although lots of women do.

Marilyn Kite (04:18):

And in fact, when I chose to, uh, apply for the Supreme Court position, my son was six years old, and I was, I believed, having researched it and talked to a lot of people that had served in that capacity that it was probably a better fit for me as a, as a mother. And it was. It was much more manageable schedule than being a practicing lawyer. Especially with my husband was also. Uh, so onc you get into the judiciary, it's a good for mothers. But getting the experience that you need to qualify it, it's tough. Some women don't make the decision to do it.

Marilyn Kite (04:53):

This is, the, lots of times we had ap-we had openings and, and maybe no women applicants, or no women applicants who had the number of years of experience that they needed to qualify, so the field isn't big enough, and so I-I'm hoping women will think of it as a, as a goal, as a professional goal and put themselves out there. Because uh, we can't select them unless they apply.

Emy diGrappa (05:18):

Yeah exactly. What was your decider to become and lawyer, and to practice law?

Marilyn Kite (05:24):

Well, you know, it was sort of an accidental decision-

Emy diGrappa (05:26):

(laughs)

Marilyn Kite (05:26):

Like a lot of them in life, I-I had a degree in International Affairs, and a Minor in French, and thought I was gonna go to the United Nations until I realized I never did wanna leave Wyoming. (laughs) and so then the reality set in as I graduated, what can you do with the bachelors degree in International Relations? [inaudible 00:05:46] became very obvious to me very quickly that I would need to get additional, uh, schooling to, to get a job that was intellectually challenging, and I just, I kinda stumbled into an interview with a gentleman from an oil company that suggested law school, and I began to think about it more. And it sort of fit; I always had an interest in political science and government, and that kind of thing.

Marilyn Kite (06:08):

So I didn't start out saying, "By golly, I wanna be a lawyer." Uh, it just sort of evolved over time, and then you know, I practiced law for almost 20 some years before the idea of being a judge was even in my head. I did have the chance to serve as a member of our judicial nomination commission. The Wyoming structure for judicial selection is this nominating commission made up of lawyers, three lawyers and three laypeople, laypeople appointed by the Governor, and lawyers elected by the bar. And I had w-another woman lawyer, uh, approach me and say, "Why don't you put your name in for the nominating commission?" Which I'd given no thought to.

Marilyn Kite (06:46):

And then serving on the nominating commission made me aware of how judges were selected and the kind of, uh, applicants that they were getting and applying, and I just made the decision after that that it was, you know, possibly something I'd like to do. But really then it was a, a good friend who was on the Supreme Court, the late Justice Lehman, who was a wonderful man and died way too young, and my brother, who was a district judge in um, [inaudible 00:07:12] county, and they both encouraged me to put my name in. And-

Emy diGrappa (07:15):

Oh that's interesting.

Marilyn Kite (07:16):

It was sort of, still surprises me. I always thought it would be too boring, you know? It would be too quiet. (laughs) it was anything but. You have this vision of people you know, sitting in a room and going through books all day long, and it certainly was more challenging than that.

Emy diGrappa (07:30):

So when you're a Supreme Court Justice, 'cause that's very interesting, when you say, "It's not boring, it's anything but boring", and what kind of cases are you overseeing and, and what is your role? So you have a district court judge, and then the Supreme Court judge is the next level?

Marilyn Kite (07:49):

That's correct in Wyoming. Some states have an intermediate [inaudible 00:07:52] court, Wyoming does not, we don't have the caseload that would justify that. You know, our roles is not to second guess the district judges or to reevaluate the facts; it's to find out if there was any legal error made in the court below. And we are the court of last resort, so we can see, we used to kinda joke that we could see anything from dog bites to the death penalty. And almost any kind of case is a-is appealable to the, to the Supreme Court. And maybe 50, 60% criminal cases and the rest were civil cases of, in every variety you could imagine, you know, divorce and commercial litigation, and administrative agency appeals and that kind of thing. Which is one of the things that makes the jobs interesting, is that every case is different.

Emy diGrappa (08:35):

Right.

Marilyn Kite (08:36):

The facts are different, the, the way you apply the law to the facts changes and interesting people involved in those cases and high stakes, important decisions. You know, make your, your actions were consequential, I mean they definitely had an impact on, on the state and on people's lives, so you wanted to get it right. So the, the work on the cases was, was anything but boring; it was very challenging.

Marilyn Kite (09:01):

And then you get to work with great people. I mean the court has a wonderful staff, and the other four members of the court were good friends, and so the interacting, uh, with the staff and the rest of the court is kind of what made it not even close to boring.

Marilyn Kite (09:16):

And then the Supreme Court's responsible for administration of the rest of the courts, and-

Emy diGrappa (09:20):

Right.

Marilyn Kite (09:20):

And that's a challenging thing when you're a Chief Justice which I was for four years, we, that's a rotating position. Then it's very challenging and very busy.

Emy diGrappa (09:29):

Oh okay.

Marilyn Kite (09:29):

And you're in-out in the state a lot more-

Emy diGrappa (09:31):

Right.

Marilyn Kite (09:31):

And involved in issues affecting, uh, the judiciary.

Emy diGrappa (09:35):

When does it leave the state and go to the Supreme Court?

Marilyn Kite (09:38):

Well there are v-there are very few cases that go directly from the state Supreme Court to the US Supreme Court, but if they involve, uh, an important question of constitutional law the US Supreme Court has a, does not have to accept all, you go up there an a petition-

Emy diGrappa (09:53):

Oh I see.

Marilyn Kite (09:54):

And if they decide they wanna review the case, then they accept the petition. And there was one case during my tenure that went to the US Supreme Court and you know, maybe once every 10 years or so something like that-

Emy diGrappa (10:06):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Marilyn Kite (10:07):

The US Supreme Court will take a case, uh, from Wyoming. They've taken case, cases from other states, but they have something like 7500 applic-applications or petitions a year and they take 75 cases. So vast majority don't get reviewed and-

Emy diGrappa (10:22):

[crosstalk 00:10:22] Don't go there. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Tell me one of your favorite memories of your work or a case that you worked on that was successful and impactful and maybe still stands in, in our state?

Marilyn Kite (10:37):

I'd look at that in two ways; one in my private practice, I worked with a law firm of Holland & Hart. We did a lot of work for the mineral industry and I can remember one case in particular where we were representing a mining company in Gillette trying to keep the coal supply contract that kept that mine going in place, and the power company wanted out of the contract. And when we went to argue that case in front of our state district judge, it was a surprise to us, but the courtroom was absolutely packed, and it was packed with people who worked at the mine whose jobs were at stake. And so it was very emotional argument, and it was very obvious the impact of the argument was going to be, and we, we were successful at that stage, and the case I think later settled, but at the end of the court session the, the people were, you know, very uh, appreciative and celebrating, and I, the firm I worked for was Holland & Hart, but it, it was a large firm with founding people Steve Hart and Joe Holland were long since, uh, deceased.

Marilyn Kite (11:39):

But I had a woman come up to me and put her arms around me and say, "Thank you so much Mrs. Hart." (laughs)

Emy diGrappa (11:43):

Aw.

Marilyn Kite (11:45):

And, you know, not funny, but it was, made me smile that there w-there was no Mrs. Hart but that she cared and it meant that much to her.

Emy diGrappa (11:53):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Marilyn Kite (11:53):

Meant a great deal to us. So there were a number of cases like that that were significant in my memory.

Emy diGrappa (11:59):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Marilyn Kite (12:00):

The service on the Wyoming Supreme Court, there were so many cases that where important and I-I think we hopefully advanced the Wyoming law in jurisprudence on a number of fronts, but the one that probably sticks out the most was the cool-school finance case which we saw in a number of uh, different, a number of different times. And the question that was before the court was Wyoming has a constitutional provision that requires education to be equal and uniform across the state, but they were funded, schools were funded solely by property tax, which is clearly not uniform across the state.

Emy diGrappa (12:34):

Right.

Marilyn Kite (12:35):

And so we had to wrestle with that decision and work with the legislature to change the financing, uh system for school-public education, which I think we did. Um, uh, legislature wasn't terribly happy with us at various stages, but they've done a great job in making the changes that need to be made to make it a constitutional system, and that's the one that probably jumps out at me most when I think about the 15 years.

Emy diGrappa (13:02):

Right. Where did you grow up again?

Marilyn Kite (13:04):

Laramie.

Emy diGrappa (13:05):

Oh you did.

Marilyn Kite (13:06):

Kindergarten to law school in Laramie, Wyoming.

Emy diGrappa (13:09):

Oh my gosh, that's amazing.

Marilyn Kite (13:11):

Yeah.

Emy diGrappa (13:11):

You are a Wyoming girl.

Marilyn Kite (13:12):

Yeah, yeah I am that for sure. (laughs)

Emy diGrappa (13:15):

Well it's interesting because, do you know Bernadine Craft?

Marilyn Kite (13:18):

Yes, of course, very well.

Emy diGrappa (13:20):

Because right now she's the only woman in the Senate.

Marilyn Kite (13:22):

In the Senate, yeah.

Emy diGrappa (13:23):

Right. Anyway, she's getting ready to retire

Marilyn Kite (13:25):

I know.

Emy diGrappa (13:26):

We're gonna miss her so much, but she's on our board.

Marilyn Kite (13:28):

Oh great.

Emy diGrappa (13:29):

And she grew up in Ro-Rock Springs, graduated from high school in Rock Springs, and she was just sharing, uh, the other night how she tried to leave and she said she had to go back. It was home, and there was just nothing like it.

Marilyn Kite (13:47):

Well that's how... We used to joke about it being the rubber band theory that you, you try to leave Wyoming but you couldn't get out 'cause it would pull you back.

Emy diGrappa (13:54):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Marilyn Kite (13:55):

And we've lived, my husband and I have lived in Jackson for about 25 years, 26 years and are getting ready to make a change, and I think we're gonna go back to Laramie, which is a great surprise to me in the thought process, but we wanna downsize and be closer to my family still, and that-

Emy diGrappa (14:11):

Oh.

Marilyn Kite (14:12):

Corner of the state, and so I think that's what we're gonna do. Uh, but you know, Wyoming is a unique place, it just really is, and-

Emy diGrappa (14:21):

Truly.

Marilyn Kite (14:21):

Part of your, becomes part of your, your spirit.

Emy diGrappa (14:24):

And your blood. (laughs)

Marilyn Kite (14:24):

Mm-hmm (affirmative) gets in your blood.

Emy diGrappa (14:25):

Gets in your blood. Well thank you so much for talking to me today.

Marilyn Kite (14:30):

[crosstalk 00:14:30] You bet. Thank you, it was a pleasure.

Emy diGrappa (14:35):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy DiGrappa, this ThinkWY podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at thinkWY.org.