Remembering Judge Jim Carrigan, UND Law Class of 1953

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School of Law


Judge Jim Carrigan, the former Boulder lawyer and University of Colorado professor who in the 1970s sat on the Colorado Supreme Court and was later nominated to the U.S. District Court by President Jimmy Carter, died late Friday afternoon at his home in south Boulder.

He was 84.

Carrigan had suffered a series of strokes.

Those who knew him described him as multi-talented, unusually energetic and highly respected in many different circles.

"He was a remarkable human being on every level," said longtime friend state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. "He had so many different roles. With all of them, he could always cut to the core and understand what the issues were, with a way of bringing people together to deal with them. That's just who he was."

A child of the Great Depression, Carrigan was raised in the prairie town of Hallock, Minnesota, where his father ran a bakery.

Through what his son Michael, an attorney and current CU regent, described as "intelligence and grit," Carrigan put himself through college at the University of North Dakota, where in 1953 he graduated first in his law class. He received his master's degree at New York University and became an assistant professor there at just 25.

While in New York, he met his eventual wife, Beverly. In June, the two celebrated their 58th anniversary.

According to Michael Carrigan, his father's move to Colorado was orchestrated by CU graduate and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

"Byron White called a dear friend on faculty at NYU and said, 'Send me your smartest student,'" Michael Carrigan said.

Carrigan flew out to interview at White's firm but decided the practice, with eight lawyers at the time, was too big. He instead got a job teaching law at the University of Denver, and never left the state after that.

He had a lifelong love of education but always a soft spot for CU, where he was elected a regent in 1974.

"In many ways, the university was his seventh child," said Michael Carrigan, one of six. "He was a great believer in public education because he was a product of it. He would teach at CU, give to CU, raise money for CU. He fell in love with Boulder, and you can't love Boulder without loving CU."

And Boulder loved him back.

"He was the kind of lawyer that we all aspire to be," said Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, who called Carrigan his mentor. "A guy that had very clear principles and the ferocious commitment to justice, both in the system and for his clients."

His intelligence and work ethic earned him a slew of accolades throughout his career, as well as two notable resume bullets: He served as a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court from 1976 to 1979; and he was nominated by Carter in 1979 to a seat on the U.S. District Court's Tenth Circuit.

"But he always had a sort of mischievous sensibility," CU law professor Mimi Wesson said. "People in those roles sometimes become kind of ponderous or self-important. He never did. He was always funny, with a sense of humor in things that wouldn't seem that humorous."

Added Garnett: "I've appeared in front of federal judges all across the country, and he's the only one I've ever met who required the lawyers to tell a joke before the hearing."

But, by all accounts, he took his position of power very seriously. A proud progressive, Carrigan made himself an enemy of white supremacists — "On more than one occasion, our house was guarded by U.S. marshals because of racist threats to my father's life," Michael Carrigan said — and was active in working with affected families after the Columbine High School massacre.

"He seemed to have a strong moral compass, and I think that served him well and served the people well," Heath said.

On one occasion, Carrigan had a convicted bank robber stand before him in federal court for violating probation because he couldn't find employment.

"My father said, 'If you need a job, I will hire to you to work with me in my garden. What resulted was a 30-year friendship," Michael Carrigan said.

According to friends, however, Carrigan's proudest achievement was his family — including six successful children, whom he took great pride in teaching to ski at Keystone.

"My dad was an incredible, humble human being," Michael Carrigan said.

The family has said that a public memorial service will be held at CU's Wolf Law Building in the near future, though details have not yet been set.