It’s not often that one comes across a former ski bum who taught a current U.S. Supreme Court justice how to pick a jury.
Or hear of a girl, originally wanting to simply be Perry Mason’s secretary, who grew up to be a U.S. attorney and was once offered the use of a mobster’s submarine.
For Aspenite Gail Nichols, now a judge in the Ninth Judicial District, a colorful legal past has helped prepare her for sitting on the bench. But it was the not-so-distant past, during cases in county court, that may have proved the most crucial. It allowed Nichols, 60, to get her foot in the door of the valley’s legal community.
Ironically, her illustrious past proved a detriment when she interviewed for the opening in Aspen for deputy district attorney. The then-district attorney, Mac Myers, worried that she was too experienced.
From the slopes to the U.S. Attorney’s Office
Nichols was the middle child of three. Her mother was a homemaker, her father the head of an energy utility. From the age of 2 she was skiing the slopes of Vermont, a passion that would eventually take her to the Rockies for ski-related sojourns after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1972.
“When I graduated college, I was in the hippie era,” she said. “We didn’t work right away. I played and ski bummed. I was a substitute teacher, I worked at a bank as a teller, did all sorts of things.”
But the childhood dream remained, and Nichols eventually enrolled at Vermont Law School, where she graduated Cum Laude in 1980.
“I started right after law school with a federal clerkship in the U.S. Court of Appeals” in Philadelphia, she said. “So that kind of got me into the federal system.”
Nine years later, she would be working with current Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, then the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, to help bring down corrupt CEOs and their companies.
The recreating judge
When not presiding over cases, or reading motions and related rulings, case histories or appeals, Nichols skis with her husband, Billy LaCouter, the head of the adult ski school at Buttermilk. Early-morning jogging and hiking with her golden retriever, Blue, also are typically on her agenda, as is an upcoming bicycle trip in Croatia.
In 1999, she took a nine-month break from law, sailing the Virgin Islands and buying a home in Vail.
But the days of popping out of the office for a ski run or two over lunch are long behind her.
“I didn’t even do [that] in the DA’s office,” she said.
By way of explanation, she held up a folder stuffed six inches thick with court documents.
“This is one motion,” she said.
Her days are still filled with absorbing judicial duties, albeit now back in a new location — Aspen. From July 2008 to this past January, she adjudicated in Garfield County District Court in Glenwood Springs. The commute between here and there “was probably the biggest downside.”
But she was able to end the commute when Chief Judge James Boyd moved to Glenwood. Nichols said the move for Boyd made sense because his administrative duties center around the Garfield County Courthouse, where he also presides over Water Court.
Asked how much she is enjoying her new career, Nichols said she likes being a judge “because I’m learning a lot, that’s great.
“But you don’t like the fact that you’re not quite together yet,” she said. “A good judge can get orders out more quickly because they know what they’re doing. I’m already doing it more quickly.”
Which, given her résumé, is unsurprising.
An East Coast career
In 1981, after the federal clerkship, she joined the law firm of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler as an associate attorney. Also at the firm was a future mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. That was before he became a U.S. attorney but after he had served as chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Harold “Ace” Tyler at the Justice Department — “so our firm had a lot of federal work,” Nichols said.
In February 1985, she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey as an assistant prosecutor. Asked about her involvement in headline-grabbing cases, she demurred.
“There were big mob cases, but I generally stayed away from them,” Nichols said.
Still, she remembered a long trial in which she knew some of the defendants.
“They’d offer you their submarines. You’d go to dinner in Newark and there they’d be. They’d call you by your first name,” Nichols recalled.
She said she never felt intimidated.
“Not at all; they were very friendly. Once I went to visit a client who was a meth dealer, and that is frowned upon by a lot of the mob. One of the Italians was in the neighboring cubicle, and whispered, ‘Hey, that’s a bad guy. You need help, let me know.’”
The judges seemed to get more threats than prosecutors. As a result, Nichols found herself prosecuting individuals who had made those threats.
Nichols gravitated toward fraud cases and began working with the U.S. Secret Service on counterfeiting crime. Credit-card fraud was a new type of crime, and she developed an expertise in the field. She also prosecuted executives of Regina and Coded Sales, among other companies.
A 1989 New York Times article about the case against Regina, which was a leading vacuum cleaner manufacturer at the time, mentions both Nichols and Alito. Their prosecution forced the firm’s top two executives to admit they mailed falsified financial statements to investors, brokers and the Securities and Exchange Commission. For defrauding investors of some $100 million, the men faced prison time and the company’s stock plunged.
She taught Alito the jury selection process because up to that point he had previously handled only appellate cases. She described him as “very nice,” acknowledging the high court judge’s conservatism.
“He’s very shy,” said Nichols, who is good friends with Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann.
Nichols’ next step was as a criminal defense attorney because “in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it’s really up and out, which is why after five years I left. It’s good to get experience on the other side.”
But she was wooed back into the federal system in 1996, accepting the job as chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey.
She left that job roughly three years later.
“I had gotten to the point where I was single, and Colorado is a much nicer place to live so I quit and took off. Did nothing for nine months,” Nichols said.
Expect the unexpected
Asked what it’s like to be a judge, Nichols said it’s been a learning process.
“Did you know Colorado has a law that allows girls under the age of 16 who want an abortion, but don’t want to tell their parents, to petition a judge?” Nichols asked. “That happened to me on my first day of the job in Glenwood.”
The role of a judge in such a case is to apply standards in state law regarding maturity and other factors. But despite that protocol, “you know it’s a lot of personal opinion affecting your decision.”
Being impartial on the bench “is actually easier than you would think,” she said.
But another difficulty for a new judge is gaining that knowledge to be objective.
“Unfortunately, even though some of the lawyers know more about one area than you do, you can’t call a lawyer” for advice, she said.
Chip McCrory is a Carbondale-based defense attorney who also has been a prosecutor. With a law career spanning three decades, the Aspen Daily News asked him what advice he would give a judge.
“Certainly we’d like a judge who is going to be decisive,” he said. “They are paid to make decisions, so for good or bad, for your client you want a decision to be made.”
McCrory also said that having a judge who is “willing listen to both sides” is key.
“No one wants a judge who is already thinking that an argument is ridiculous or has no basis,” he said. “The last thing you want is a judge who has already looked at the DA’s answer on responses” to motions.
It’s important to be able to apprise judges of issues without prejudicing them, McCrory said.
“I’ve known both public defenders and prosecutors who have become judges, and have seen some of them actually taking the part of an attorney,” he said.
Over and under qualified
After her hiatus, Nichols returned to law in November 1999, in a legal role known as “of counsel” with the Denver firm Sherman & Howard. After four years there, she was considering opening her own practice in the mountains when her future husband told her a deputy district attorney job had come open in Aspen. She had contacted the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office previously about a job “but they never even responded,” Nichols said.
She decided to get the office’s attention much like any other job seeker moving to the Roaring Fork Valley: On the cover sheet to her résumé was, simply: “I have a place to live.”
“That’s all I put on it,” Nichols said. “I kind of had to beg because Mac was worried that I was too experienced for county court. In reality, I had no experience on that level. I didn’t have a clue what a DUI was, never mind traffic offenses.”
She had to interview twice before the job was hers. Going from federal prosecutions and taking down dirty CEOs to DUIs didn’t feel like a step down the career ladder, Nichols said.
“I thought of it as a plum because I didn’t know anyone in the legal community and how was I going to get work? I mean, granted I was experienced. But so what? You don’t get hired unless someone knows you, so to me [the county court job] was a God-send.”
She ended up learning about domestic violence law and other “things that just don’t end up on the federal level.”
In 2006, she was promoted to chief deputy district attorney. In 2008, she and several lawyers from the valley submitted lengthy applications in a bid to be appointed to the 9th Judicial bench. She and two others made the initial cut, and so on a docket day in May 2008, she had special instructions for her clerk: “If the governor calls, come and get me.”
The clerk soon showed up with Nichols’ cell phone, with then-Gov. Bill Ritter on the line.
“It was exciting. It’s a long process,” Nichols said. “You have to get recommendation letters. Most of my friends were judges [and] judges are not allowed to write letters of recommendation.”
She remembered vividly her last conviction as a prosecutor before her judicial career began. She was the special prosecutor in a rape case in Leadville, brought in because of a court interpreter’s conversation with the initial prosecutor, who as a result had to recuse herself.
“There was a conversation between the defendant and his attorney, and the interpreter told the prosecutor what was said,” Nichols recalled. “That created a conflict.”
Since being appointed, Nichols has ruled on matters both complex and mundane. For instance, as the interview with the Aspen Daily News was ending, she was asked if taking a photo of her in the courtroom was possible. After consulting the statute on judicial conduct, she ruled against the newspaper’s request. The immediate appeal also was rebuffed.
“My stomach is telling me ‘no’ on this one,” she said, after interpreting state law on the matter.
As for that childhood dream about being Perry Mason’s secretary, it didn’t last long. She voiced her job goal to her mother while waiting for the school bus in the fifth grade.
“I told my mother I wanted to be Della Street. And she said, ‘No you don’t, you want to be a lawyer. I said, ‘Oh, OK.’”