The original version of this blog post was written by the Hon. Melody Mirbaba and published in The 1891 Blog on October 30, 2020, when Judge Spahn was honored by the Colorado Judicial Institute with their Annual Judicial Excellence Award. The post has been updated in light of the CWBA honoring Judge Theresa Spahn with the CWBA Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award in Beaver Creek, Colorado on May 20, 2022 at 5:30pm.
On the first evening of the CWBA 45th Annual Convention, the CWBA will be honoring Judge Theresa Spahn with the Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award. Mary Lathrop was a women whose many accomplishments as the “first women to-” would inspire others to pursue similar trailblazing paths. A native of Philadelphia Mary came to Colorado to pursue a legal degree at the University of Denver College of Law. She graduated first in her class and later went on to set the record score for the Colorado Bar in 1896, which record would stand until 1941. She was the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. District Court in Colorado, the first woman to open a law office in Colorado, the first woman to argue before the Colorado Supreme Court, the first woman to join the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations, and was one of the first two women to join the American Bar Association. In order to preserve and foster the memory of Mary Lathrop, the CWBA has been honoring trailblazing female attorneys who have enriched the community through their legal and civic activities. Judge Spahn’s legal career illustrates all of the traits and characteristics that embody the spirit of Mary Lathrop.
A Denver native, Judge Spahn persevered to become the first member of her family to go to college, then to law school. Judge Spahn’s early legal experiences include working with a domestic relations law firm before moving on to the Adams County District Attorney’s Office in 1989. In 1992, she became a district attorney with Mesa County, where she focused on crimes against children and lead the Sexual Abuse Task Force. Starting in 1994, Judge Spahn spent seven years as a magistrate in the 17th Judicial District, presiding over juvenile, domestic, and criminal cases. That is where she discovered her passion for the role of a judge because judges make decisions that impact lives.
Judge Spahn joined the CWBA in 2001. In the same year, after recognizing a need to ensure that children have strong legal representation, Judge Spahn overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to help found the Office of the Child’s Representative (OCR). In doing so, she helped Colorado become a national pioneer for forward-thinking child advocacy, and changed the landscape of child welfare law in Colorado. Her tireless efforts to provide our state’s children with strong legal advocacy make a lasting impact on each child served, resulting in a positive, long-term ripple effect on our entire community. Her work at the OCR created a legacy that others continue to aspire to decades later. Since initiating her membership with the CWBA, Judge Spahn has been very involved in the organization including serving on the Board of Directors and serving as the President from 2007-08.
In 2009, Judge Spahn become the Director for the O’Connor Judicial Selection Initiative with the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. There, she created a national policy reform initiative to advance a judicial system that promotes fair and impartial courts for all citizens. Judge Spahn briefly went back into private practice before returning to the bench in 2014. Judge Theresa Spahn was appointed to the Denver County Court bench in 2014 and served as its Presiding Judge from January 2017 through December 2021. As Presiding Judge, she pursued innovative techniques to improve access to justice in Denver County Court. She continues to root out and resolve issues negatively impacting access to justice, and ardently guards Denver County Court’s impartiality and integrity, regardless of the personal impact on her. In a recent example, Judge Spahn’s actions to protect the smooth functioning of the Denver County Court resulted in a public call for violence against her and other judges. She persevered with grace to continue to lead the way to break new ground to ensure that the Denver County Court continues to be the respected and diverse bench it is. As one judge put it, “Judge Spahn is fierce, and completely unafraid” of doing the right thing for the Denver community, regardless of the potential consequences to her politically and personally.
Denver County Court leads the state as the only county with a female majority on the bench. Judge Spahn has led this diverse bench by modeling how women can be strong and effective leaders while also being true to themselves as women, mothers, and individuals. She helps advance women to the bench by guiding them to take steps to elevate their candidacy, and inspires them to do the same for others, thereby promoting the cycle of women’s advancement in the legal field.
Judge Spahn credits her career success to her supporters — the people who encouraged her to take risks by seeking out new and challenging opportunities. Judge Spahn has paid that forward, providing a support system for many women. She ardently believes that professional growth in the legal field is a team effort, and that when women support each other, we can go far. Judge Spahn is tireless in her efforts to help advance women’s careers. She helps women lift themselves up, and inspires them to do the same for others. Without prompting, she reaches out to people who are already settled in positions to see if they are happy with their work, to encourage them never to settle, and to support them in their career paths. She advocates on behalf of women considering a job change to anyone in a position to help (be it a hiring authority or someone in the field who can offer advice). Judge Spahn pushes women not to settle for simply being comfortable in their work. Instead, she presses them to dream bigger and push themselves to make a larger positive impact on the community. Her trailblazing work throughout her career has created a lasting and positive impact on women and our state.
In 2018, the CWBA recognized Judge Spahn for all of her trailblazing work with the 2018 Judicial Award. She appreciates how her work with the CWBA has enriched her life and career, and she continues to enthusiastically advocate for others to join and get involved with the CWBA. Judge Spahn continues to give back every single day as a Judge, and she volunteers to teach for the Colorado Bar Association Leadership Training program (known as COBALT). She encourages women and others in the legal community to get involved in that program, which has had a significant positive impact on graduates’ career trajectories.
Judge Spahn rejoices in women’s successes and supports them through difficult times. When a woman is being honored, she’s there to applaud, and when they are suffering, she is there to help. The CWBA is delighted to honor Judge Theresa Spahn with the 2022 CWBA Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award.
Melody Mirbaba is an administrative law judge with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, a position she has held for more than three years. Mirbaba was previously deputy attorney general for the Colorado Attorney General’s State Services Section for more than three years, where she oversaw the legal representation for Gov. John Hickenlooper and other elected state officials, the administrative parts of the Colorado Judicial Branch, Colorado State Board of Education, more than 20 Colorado-supported universities and colleges, and a litany of state departments. Mirbaba also spent 11 years as an assistant attorney general in the Human Services and Public Officials Units of Colorado Attorney General’s State Services Section. Mirbaba’s volunteer commitments earned her the Governor Ralph L. Carr Award for Excellence in Public Service in 2010 from the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Colorado. She is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
Carime Lee is a Staff Attorney with the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority and has served as a Publications Committee Co-Chair since 2020. She is honored to be a member of the inaugural Class of the Colorado Bar Diverse Attorney Community Circle as well as the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation’s Spring 2022 Impact Denver Class.