The Legal Advocate

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Asked and Answered: Judge Robert McGahey

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written by NITA’s Legal Editor Marsi Buckmelter

Robert_McGaheyWe all know and love Denver District Court Judge Bob McGahey from his years of lively instruction at NITA programs (eighty-eight so far, with no sign of slowing down) and the legal movie reviews he writes for us here on The Legal Advocate. When we decided to kick off “Asked and Answered,” our new series of interviews with NITA personalities, Judge McGahey was the natural choice for our inaugural post. We hope you’ll enjoy getting to know him as much as we did.

What is a typical day in the life of a judge in Denver District Court like?
It depends (a good lawyer-like answer). We have three divisions in the Denver District Court: civil, criminal, and domestic. Depending on your assignment, [as judge] you could be in trials regularly (criminal), hearings regularly (domestic), or a mix of trials hearings and desk time (civil). Since I’m currently in a civil division, the last defines my day. Really and truly, I don’t have a standard daily routine, unless I’m in trial. Then I’m here at 8:15 a.m. to talk briefly with counsel before bringing the jury back at 8:30 and going on from there until 5:00 p.m. We take a fifteen- to twenty-minute break in the morning, another similar break in the afternoon, and an hour to an hour and a half for lunch depending on witness availability. It’s common for me to set matters of course during the lunch break so that we don’t lose trial time. All the time I’m on the bench, I multi-task: communicating with my staff via email or IM, looking at motions or other pleadings, fine-tuning orders, etc. I stop at 5:00 since I teach at the University of Denver School of Law three nights a week (Basic and Advanced Trial Practice and the Judicial Externship Seminar). I’m a member of several court-related committees as well as one at the law school. I have to work NITA programs and events into my schedule, but NITA is flexible about that. And I still try to get to my granddaughter’s school concerts, talent shows, and fun fairs!

What is the most challenging part of your work on the bench?
I’ve been a lawyer for almost forty years and have taught advocacy since the 1980s. I have high standards for advocates, given how the advocate’s performance affects the life of the client. I struggle with lawyers who come into court unprepared, who don’t know the law, who make the case about emotion rather than reason, and whose focus is on themselves rather than on the client’s case.

What changes in the Colorado judicial system would you most like to see?
I’d like to see an increase in judicial salaries, not just for my own selfish reasons but so that we can be sure to attract the best candidates for the bench. Our judicial selection and retention system is the best in the country, and Colorado has an outstanding group of judges, at all levels. But increasing salaries would make sure that the net is spread as widely as possible when it comes to picking judges.

What is the earliest recollection you have of realizing that being a member of the judiciary was something you’d be interested in and capable of?
I never thought I wanted to be a judge. But I practiced law for years with Bill DeMoulin, who was first my mentor and then my partner. After Bill became a district judge in Jefferson County, I would stop by and see him when I was in the courthouse and we would talk about life and the law. In one conversation, Bill said, “I see that there’s a judgeship opening up in Denver,” and I replied: “I saw that. I wonder who’ll get it?” His answer was, “Why not you?” Taken aback, I said, “I don’t think I want to be a judge.” Bill laughed and said, “What do you think we’ve been talking about for the last two years?” It dawned on me that Bill had been subtly moving me toward thinking about becoming a judge, and I began to consciously consider that as the next step in my career.

What was your first experience with NITA?
It’s far enough back that I can’t even remember the exact year, but sometime in the ’80s, Mark Caldwell [NITA Program Development and Resource Director] called me up and asked me to be a last-minute replacement for the Rocky Mountain Regional. Someone (and I can’t remember who) had recommended me. I agreed to do it and found the experience terrific. NITA became an important part of my life from then on.

Why do you teach?
The smart-aleck answer is: “Self-defense. The better I can train lawyers, the easier my job is.” The bigger answer is that I am devoted to trial advocacy and its value to people. I wanted to be a trial lawyer from age nine, which was when Perry Mason started on TV. I thought that was the coolest thing I ever saw, and I wanted to do it. I’ve been fortunate to be able to spend my adult life involved in the legal system, first as a lawyer, then as a judge, and I’ve been able to teach advocacy as well. The value of “advocacy” is profound. The word “advocate” comes from the Latin “ad-vo-cate,” which means “to be called to speak for.” How cool is that? Since I care about advocacy, I want to see it done properly, which is why I teach. Maudlin though it sounds, the people I teach will be practicing law after I’m dead. It’s important to me to know that the advocates who come after me will be doing the job right.

If you hadn’t gone into the law, what career path do you think you might’ve taken instead?
I was encouraged by some of my undergraduate professors to consider an academic career in political science, but that had very little appeal to me. My guilty secret is that I almost transferred to the NYU Film School before my junior year in college. I decided that while I was pretty sure I could be a good lawyer, I wasn’t sure I could make good movies.

You’re NITA’s resident movie buff, so we have to ask, what are your three favorite movies of all time? What do you like about them?
Being a lawyer, I’ll break this down into overall favorites and favorite law movies. My single favorite movie ever, the one I’d watch over and over if I could only watch one movie on an endless loop, would be The Searchers (1956.) The greatest western (the essential American genre) by the greatest American director, John Ford, it’s a stunning achievement in direction, cinematography, and acting, especially on the part of its star, John Wayne (don’t laugh; he should have won an Oscar!). The movie examines obsession, hatred, and racism and how those things corrode the soul. My next two favorites would be Duck Soup (1933), an anarchic, political, anti-war comedy starring the Marx Brothers (the funniest people who ever lived), and The Mark of Zorro (1940) because I love swashbuckler movies, especially this one, with the greatest onscreen swordfight ever! Favorite three legal movies: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (obviously), My Cousin Vinny (1992) (also obviously), and a tie for third between Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959.)

What book have you re-read the most in your life? Perhaps not necessarily a favorite book, but the one that keeps drawing you back into it?
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. I’ve re-read it every four or five years since college—and not because it’s my “favorite” book.

What historical figures would you most like to have dinner with, and why?
Abraham Lincoln, the epitome of lawyerly grace under pressure, of compassion, and of character.
St. Thomas More, because he struggled with the how a lawyer’s devotion to the law clashed with his conscience.
John Ford, because he was a crotchety bastard, but a genius.
Pele, because I’m a soccer fan and he was the greatest player ever (at least before Messi.)

Who are your heroes?
Lincoln and St. Thomas More, for the reasons described above. But on a more personal level, my maternal grandparents, Peter and Diana Radulovic, who immigrated to the United States from Serbia to find a better life for themselves, their children, and their children’s children.

For what fault do you have the most tolerance?
Overestimation of one’s abilities. It’s OK to strive for something and fail. (Note: This does not apply to lawyers in my courtroom. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood, “A lawyer’s got to know his/her limitations.”)

What is your motto?
Illegitimi non carborundum.

Hear more from Judge McGahey with his recent movies reviews: “A Scourge That Is Always With Us,” “Inspired by a True Story? Well, Not So Much . . . .,” “Like A Knotted-Up Hose, or A Plate of Spaghetti,” or catch him presenting in last month’s webcast from NITA, now avilable OnDemand: “Bench Trials: What you say and what the judge hears.”

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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