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In Memoriam: Judge Zita Weinshienk’s Legacy

Judge Zita Leeson Weinshienk passed away peacefully in her home on October 7, 2022, at age 89. Many descriptions of Weinshienk begin with “the first woman.” She was among the first women to attend Harvard, and the first woman to serve as a judge on the Denver County Court, the Denver District Court, and the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. But in addition to being first, she is remembered as being the best. She was a brilliant and compassionate jurist; a consummate professional; and a self-confident, humble, and warm person. She inspired many and paved the way for women to serve in the judiciary in Colorado.


Judge Weinshienk (far right) pictured with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg


Weinshienk came from humble beginnings. She was born in 1933 in St. Paul, Minnesota to an Irish mother and a Canadian father, both Jewish immigrants without high school diplomas who came to the United States in their teens. Her father worked as an upholsterer for a furniture company, and her mother served as a bookkeeper for the same company. In 1945, Weinshienk’s family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where her father opened his own upholstery store. As the oldest of three siblings, Weinshienk took on significant responsibility caring for her brothers. Weinshienk’s brothers, both now deceased, grew up to have impressive careers, like Weinshienk. Her youngest brother, Michael Leeson, was an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, known for co-creating and writing the Cosby Show, as well as writing the screenplay for The War of the Roses. Her middle brother, Alan Leeson, owned a successful flexographic label company and won multiple awards in the industry.


Photo courtesy of the ABA Women Trailblazers Project


Weinshienk excelled in school with ease, and, with the help of a few key mentors, found her place in the legal profession, where she thrived. In her oral history, recorded in 2009 as part of the American Bar Association’s Women Trailblazers Project, Weinshienk recalled enjoying primary and high school and doing well in all subjects, but especially excelling in algebra and English. She graduated fifth in her high school class of more than 500 students. Beyond the classroom, Weinshienk served as the editor of her high school’s literary magazine. She was the magazine’s first editor to publish four issues in one year. Her advisor on the magazine and first mentor encouraged her to apply to college.


Weinshienk’s undergraduate studies in political science were divided between the University of Colorado and the University of Arizona, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1955. Weinshienk first considered going to law school on the advice of Reuben Zubrow, her economics professor at the University of Colorado. Zubrow encouraged Weinshienk to apply to Harvard Law School after she earned an “A” in his advanced economic theory class. Weinshienk was admitted to Harvard on an academic scholarship. She was one of 12 women in her class.


At Harvard, Weinshienk was reacquainted with Hubert Weinshienk, a friend from the University of Colorado. The two married in July 1956. They spent the next two years absorbed in study. Hubert participated in law review, while Weinshienk competed on a moot court team. As Weinshienk recalled in her oral history, she and her husband would occasionally choose to read the New York Times on Sunday in lieu of studying, but there was never time for both. Weinshienk graduated from Harvard cum laude, and she and Hubert both earned Fulbright scholarships to study in Denmark. Before traveling to Denmark, Weinshienk sat for the Colorado Bar Exam. She earned the top score on the exam; her husband was third.


After completing the Fulbright program, Weinshienk returned to Colorado to begin her legal career, but she struggled to find an attorney position because of her plans to have a family. Her Fulbright paper on the Danish juvenile justice system caught the eye of Judge Philip Gilliam of the Denver Juvenile Court. Gilliam hired Weinshienk to serve as his law clerk and campaign manager. Later, Judge Weinshienk became a probation counselor, legal advisor, and referee with the Juvenile Court. With the permission of the Juvenile Court, she also ran a solo practice representing parties in domestic relations and criminal matters during this time.


In 1964, Judge Gilliam encouraged Weinshienk to apply for an open judicial position on the Denver Municipal Court (now Denver County Court). Weinshienk was selected, and she became the first woman to serve as a judge on that court. In March 1969, Weinshienk oversaw the high-profile criminal trial of the late Lauren Watson, a founder of the Black Panther Party in Colorado. After a four-day trial, the jury found Watson not guilty of interfering with a police officer and resisting arrest. The trial was filmed and made into a documentary that aired in March 1970. The film described Weinshienk as “able and conscientious” and lauded her conduct of the trial as a “hopeful way” for the “explosive conflicts in this country to be worked out,” comparing her oversight with the highly publicized trial from the same year, the Chicago Seven Trial, which involved a district judge who exhibited “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense.” United States v. Dellinger, 472 F.2d 340, 386 (7th Cir. 1972). In her oral history, Weinshienk recalled that the film was shown in law schools as an example of how a trial ought to be conducted, and, after the film was released, she received “many, many” letters from women who were inspired to go to law school because of it.


In 1972, Weinshienk became the first woman appointed to serve on the Denver District Court. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated Weinshienk to fill a vacancy on the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. She was appointed the same year and became the first woman to serve as a judge on that court.


Considering the era that she entered the workforce, Weinshienk faced challenges now unheard of in the legal profession. For example, due to a lack of maternity leave, Weinshienk planned the birth of her third child to fall at the end of a calendar year, in December 1964, so that she could use consecutively her 1964 and 1965 vacation time to care for her newborn before returning to work. Weinshienk also faced hostility from the dean of Harvard Law School for being a woman. Harvard did not admit women into its law school until 1950, and Weinshienk’s class had only 12 female students. The dean of the law school made a point to tell the women in Weinshienk’s class that they were occupying the place of well-qualified men who should have been accepted in their stead because, he told them, even if they graduated, they would likely get married, have children, and never use their law degrees. In her oral history, Weinshienk said that such interactions only fueled her determination to be successful in law school.


Throughout her career in Denver, Weinshienk was highly respected and admired by her judicial colleagues, her law clerks, and the attorneys appearing before her. She is also remembered for being extremely supportive of her female colleagues.


“She was a legend for her judiciousness and her decisiveness” and “she was warm,” said U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Ebel, who knew Judge Weinshienk professionally.

“She ruled from the bench often,” recalled U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado Chief Judge Philip Brimmer, a former law clerk to Weinshienk. On Weinshienk’s approach to cases, Brimmer said Weinshienk was impeccably thorough and “never treated any proceeding as routine.” Using change of plea hearings as an example, Brimmer said Weinshienk was careful to engage each defendant that appeared before her, recognizing the great importance the proceeding held for that person. Regarding her demeanor, Brimmer described Weinshienk as “modest,” “unflappable,” and “very kind.” “She regarded former law clerks like family members.”

“She was very supportive of women in a number of different ways,” recalled U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado Judge Marcia Krieger, the first woman to serve as the Chief Judge of that court. Weinshienk offered Krieger encouragement when Krieger was appointed to serve on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 1994 and when she was nominated to the District of Colorado in 2002. Krieger said Weinshienk found subtle ways to support female attorneys and judges. “She was a wonderful caring person and I think that characterized a lot of what she did in the courtroom.”


Weinshienk earned numerous awards throughout her life for her professional triumphs. She was selected as one of the “100 Women in Touch with Our Time” by Harper’s Bazaar Magazine in 1971. She received the CWBA’s Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award in 1995. She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000. She was also honored by the University of Colorado, the Denver Federation of Business and Professional Women, the Colorado Bar Association, and the Colorado Women’s Leadership Coalition. Weinshienk received honorary degrees from Loretto Heights College and the University of Denver Law School.


In her personal life, Weinshienk was dedicated to her family. Twice widowed, she is survived by her three daughters, four stepchildren, 19 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren. One of her grandchildren, Samara Hoose, an attorney in Denver, said that Weinshienk loved Colorado and its mountains throughout her life. Weinshienk enjoyed skiing, hiking, and birdwatching. Hoose described her grandmother as incredibly loving and joyful. Hoose recounted an evening out in Boulder with Weinshienk and Hoose’s now-husband, during which the three went dancing “all night.” When Hoose asked Weinshienk what she would have been had she not become a lawyer, Weinshienk said, apropos of the evening, “a dancer!”


Weinshienk attended the very first meeting of the CWBA and was a strong supporter and promoter of the CWBA thereafter. The CWBA and its members are perpetually grateful to Judge Weinshienk for all that she did to inspire us and to create new opportunities for women in our profession.


Donations in her honor may be made to The Nature Conservancy, 4245 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington, Virginia 22203-1606.

 

Molly Kokesh is an attorney at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP, where she represents commercial clients in complex trial and appellate matters, with a focus on natural resources litigation.

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Beautifully written, Molly--thank you!

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