Charlotte Sweeney, recently confirmed as the newest judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, didn’t always imagine a career in the law. As an undergraduate, she was a psychology major and saw that as her chosen field. However, it struck her that there were other ways to help people and that her skill set might be bettered suited elsewhere, ultimately deciding to pursue law at the University of Denver. Sweeney went on to a distinguished career in private practice, focusing on civil rights law with her firm, Sweeney & Bechtold, LLC.
For most of her career, Sweeney hadn’t given much thought to pursuing a judgeship. It was only recently, when she saw how the world and country were dramatically changing, that she began to feel that “if you have a certain skill set, you need to dive in and use it.” She thought it might be a chance to do more. At about this time, President Biden put out a memo indicating that the White House was looking for diverse judicial candidates with civil rights experience. Sweeney’s daughter was also considering joining a new sports team, and as they both tend to hesitate when jumping into something new, they decided to leap in at the same time as a lesson to them both.
Sweeney describes the process leading to her selection as a bit slow. To begin, Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper sent out a notice seeking applications. Next, an advisory committee interviewed and selected some of the candidates to be interviewed by the senators. Three names were then sent to the White House, followed by an interview with the White House. Sweeney then had to complete background checks and FBI paperwork. Next, it was time for a hearing. In the Judiciary Committee, Sweeney didn’t get the necessary Republican votes, so a discharge vote was required to move out of the Judiciary Committee for a vote of the full Senate. The vote of the full Senate was completed and Sweeney was confirmed in May 2022 after more than a year-long process.
Sweeney found that the most difficult part of the process was the uncertainty of what was going on and not knowing what was happening behind the scenes. The waiting and length of the process were also challenging. Sweeney says that through it all, “you have to trust in yourself and your abilities and know that whatever happens, happens for a reason.” She was also surprised by the amount of work that went into the process, making it difficult to balance her law practice at times. Sweeney advises those who may be considering applying for a judgeship to “watch for signs that it is your time. It may be scary, but do not hesitate.” She also recommends talking to those who went through the process. While it wouldn’t have changed her mind about applying, she would have had a better idea of the process and what was in store had she spoken with others who had been through the process.
As for how her current work has prepared her for the bench, Sweeney feels that any litigation practice helps prepare you. No one applying for a judgeship will ever be an expert in every area. In Sweeney’s case, she acknowledges that she has less experience on the criminal side, but having over 25 years of experience in court provides great insight into the expectations of individual or corporate litigants. She wants everyone in her courtroom to feel they are being heard and their position is being considered. She hopes to give cases the attention they deserve while also being efficient and eliminating delay. She feels that the key is to have any party feel they had a fair day in court. Sweeney notes that patience, compassion, a high level of competence, and a willingness to learn are qualities that make for a good judge. She also feels that being an effective judge means contributing to the community. The judges that taught her the most were the ones mentoring attorneys, teaching at CLEs, and otherwise being active members of our legal community. She hopes to model after those judges.
While a more formal investiture will be scheduled later, Sweeney will take the bench August 1. Lack of certainty about the timing has made planning for the transition to her new role somewhat challenging. Sweeney had originally thought the process would be complete in December and ramped up her practice again when things dragged on. Now, she is focusing on making sure clients have a smooth transition to a new attorney. She is also meeting with Article III judges and magistrate judges at the U.S. District Court and enjoys getting many different views on all issues affecting the federal court bench. Sweeney says that in the past few weeks, it has become more apparent what she will miss most about private practice—clients. Clients have always been meaningful to her, and that connection will be her top loss.
As for what she hopes to accomplish on the bench, Sweeney says she needs to get there and see what opportunities exist. She notes that judges often do take on a particular issue or role and she is looking forward to seeing what hers might be. However, for the first year or two, she plans on getting up to speed and focusing on the cases before her. She also wants to make sure that there’s an avenue for mentorship and feels the bench can always use more judges that understand that it’s hard to be a practicing attorney and seek to help where they can.
Sweeney is the first openly gay woman to serve as a federal judge west of the Mississippi. When asked what this means to her, Sweeney said that there always needs to be a first and it is exciting when that happens, but it is also stunning that it hadn’t happened before. She hopes it serves as a model for other members of the LGBTQ community to apply for the bench and opens the door for many others. She also believes that her selection will help demonstrate and ensure that the court reflects a broad cross section of the people it serves.
Sweeney cites Ruth Bader Ginsberg as her greatest inspiration in the law. She also points to Judge Marcia Krieger and her work with the Faculty of Federal Advocates and leadership in the court as an inspiration. Personally, one her most meaningful inspirations outside of the law was a college professor, Jan Bowman, who was integral to her coming out process. Sweeney attended law school during the passage and challenge to Amendment 2, which was closely followed by the murder of Matthew Shepard. While these events motivated her in her career and personal path, they also highlighted the danger that existed at that time. While attitudes have changed, she notes that it is uncertain where we are headed now.
Sweeney doesn’t have a particular legal accomplishment that she is especially proud of because she sees her career as continuing and evolving. She doesn’t focus on individual accomplishments, but is proud of helping as many people as she has to this point in time.
Sweeney is a long-time member of the CWBA. She imagines that when she joined it seemed to be a good way to get to know other female lawyers in town. She later became more involved in committees and spent a lot of time with the Public Policy Committee. It was an opportunity to give back, work on things she cared about, and be part of seeing new attorneys make their way to becoming leaders.
Sweeney was particularly instrumental in the 2019 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. Both she and the CWBA had been working for many years on ways in which to close the pay gap. As the issue greatly affected women across all employment sectors, it was an issue near and dear to her heart. Eventually, Jessie Danielson, Janet Buckner, Brittany Peterson, and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez stepped forward to sponsor the legislation, but it took several years and iterations and the efforts of dozens of people to generate and pass the final, successful bill. “It was a huge accomplishment putting into place one of the most influential equal pay acts in the country that works in a nonpunitive way.” Because the Act is proactive, it had broad support. Sweeney says she always had equal pay on the brain because of her clients and two teenage daughters.
Outside of the law, Sweeney is a big traveler. Before COVID she had three big trips: one to Ireland, one to Portugal, and then a trip with her daughters to the Women’s World Cup Soccer Finals in France. She loves Scandinavia and hopes to take her daughters to Norway one day soon. She grew up in Colorado, so she loves any mountain time or activity and delights in spending time with her daughters. Sweeney also enjoys movies and reading, though lately has not had as much time for leisure reading.
Sweeney balances her personal and professional lives by prioritizing being home at a reasonable hour. She starts her day early so she can be home later to spend time with her daughters. For her, it is about knowing how to structure her day and leave work at work.
Sweeney says that what others might find surprising about her is broad and somewhat questionable music taste. You may see her at a variety of concerts, but she particularly enjoys EDM, dance, and pop music. She may be the oldest person in the audience, but she’ll go to any concert!
Kate Noble is a CWBA Publications Committee member and a legal editor with Colorado Bar Association CLE, the nonprofit educational arm of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations.