The Roundup: A Conversation With Marilyn Kite

Tune in to The Roundup, a podcast featuring voices, opinions, and perspectives from interesting people in the Cowboy State. Episode 9 features Marilyn Kite, the first female justice on the Wyoming Supreme Court.

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Wendy Corr

February 02, 202430 min read

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A Conversation With Marilyn Kite 

Wendy Corr

Well, hey there, folks! Welcome to The Roundup, a podcast featuring voices, opinions and perspectives from interesting people in the Cowboy State. I'm your host, Wendy Corr, and we have such an interesting person today!

We had several people reach out and say, you know, one of the people that you should get on your podcast is Marilyn Kite. Marilyn Kite, the first female Supreme Court justice in the state of Wyoming,  and the first female chief justice for the Wyoming Supreme Court. And so I reached out to Marilyn and - fun fact, Marilyn was on her Peloton when I got a hold of her - and she said, let me call you back. But she was so gracious, and Marilyn, what a joy it is to meet you, and to hear your story today.

Marilyn Kite

Thank you for inviting me. It'll be fun.

Wendy Corr

It will be. I’ve got to start out by saying what are you doing with your life right now? You're retired, you've been retired since 2015, correct? So what's your life like?

Marilyn Kite

Well, it seems very chaotic and busy. I mean, I'm supposed to be retired and laying around reading books. But as soon as I retired, we moved from Jackson. I grew up in Laramie, but we lived in Jackson for 27 years, something like that. And we were ready to downsize, and we didn't want to leave Wyoming. And we looked all around - and I didn't really foresee it, but we ended up back in my hometown. 

And so we moved to the Laramie in 2017, and we had the pleasure of building a house here. The folks in my family that are still around, are in the Laramie area. My husband and I both really enjoy being around the University, so we moved to Laramie, and things are just very busy. You know, if you're willing to take the time, there's lots of folks out there that want volunteer assistance in various ways. 

Our son lives in Fort Collins, so we get to see him a lot more. We don't travel as much as I thought, we would, of course the pandemic caused that problem. But one of my passions is my horse, and my niece down here rides a lot. So we're spending a lot of time on horseback. 

Wendy Corr

That is marvelous. A true Wyoming cowgirl in that way.

Marilyn Kite

At least I can stay on top, that’s all I’ll say.

Wendy Corr

That's very true. Marilyn, as you just mentioned, your journey started in Laramie. How is it, and when is it, that you decided, “You know what, I want to go into law?” Did you always think, “I want to be a judge?” Or did you just start out by saying, “I really want to be a lawyer?” How did that work?

Marilyn Kite

I did not start out with any clarity. I was interested in political science and government and those kinds of things, and I ended up majoring in international affairs. And we had taken a trip to New York, my family and I had, and I became enamored with the United Nations, and I decided maybe I needed to be in international relations, and a minor in French. And then when I graduated, reality set in and I didn't want to leave Wyoming. 

So the question is, what can you do, and what's a challenging career? And I actually had an interview with a gentleman from an oil and gas company that was trying to hire people to be land men, you know, look, reviewing titles and that kind of thing, and you could go to law school at night. Well, I'd never thought of that. And during the interview, he said, “Did you ever think about law school?” And I’m like, “No…” And so that kind of planted the seed. 

But the story I love to tell is, my advisor in political science, Ken Baker, just a wonderful guy. And I went to him because I wasn't sure I could do it. You know, I mean, I graduated with honors and I was a good student and all of that - but having seen no women lawyer, I went to him and said, “Do you think I could?” And he was furious with me, because he said, “Of course you can! And why are you even questioning?” And, you know, that planted the seed. 

So, before July after my graduation, I hadn't given any thought to going to law school. 

Wendy Corr

But you had a teacher. You had a teacher that was invested in you, that supported you, that cheered you on. That to me says so much about Wyoming.

Marilyn Kite

It does. And I you know, I went around - my dad was a dentist here in Laramie, and I talked to a lot of his friends that were lawyers. And they weren't discouraging, but they were certainly puzzled by the idea. And, I had said, you know, I'd like to have a family, and is it possible to do it sort of part time? , And they all looked down their nose at me, when I suggested that. Of course, I never really went part time. But there just weren't any (women lawyers) that I knew. There were probably, I don't know, six or seven women who had graduated law school, not many of them actually practicing in Wyoming. And we had 125 in our entering class, and seven were women. So you know, there just weren't a lot of role models wandering around in the law at that stage of the game. So I was very lucky to have a good professor who encouraged me.

Wendy Corr

So then when, you went into this, knowing that - especially after you graduated, and it's like, there's seven women here? And did you say, you know, maybe we could be on the leading edge? Did that cross your mind at the time? 

Marilyn Kite

You know, I'm not sure that in that context It did. I mean, the women that were in my class were sort of immediate friends and allies. And, all of the instructors,  I can't think of a single instructor that was, you know, judgmental, or discouraging or anything like that. So it wasn't so much trying to be on the leading edge, it was trying to get a job that was challenging and interesting that I wanted to do. That was driving me more than anything.

Wendy Corr

So where did you get a job after you completed your law degree? 

Marilyn Kite

Well, my first job was with the Wyoming Attorney General's office, and it was an absolute stroke of luck, like a lot of things in life, and timing and everything else. I was kind of interested in the area of Natural Resources and Environment. But you know, this was a long time ago - the state Environmental Quality Act had been passed about a year and a half or two years before I graduated, and created an agency that was an environmental agency. I did not have that in mind. But there were five or six of us that went to the Attorney General's office that year. 

And, you know, the Attorney General, I knew him, but he didn't know my interests or anything. And I ended up getting assigned to the Department of Environmental Quality, which I joked about later - he thought I couldn't do any harm there because, ‘it was just starting, it's no big deal!’ 

So it was really an amazing, kind of life happens to you. And it became a great place for me to start because there was no lawyer before me, and so I did a lot of things that I probably wasn't qualified to do, I didn't have a whole lot of supervision. I had some great people in the department that were lifelong friends, but they didn't know anything about the legal side, either. So, talk about making it up as you go along.

Wendy Corr

And obviously, you succeeded there. How long were you with the DEQ?

Marilyn Kite

Three and a half, four years. I was actually working for the AG but assigned to DEQ. I left the Attorney General's office after about three and a half years, just wanting to do something else. And it was a long process, but I ended up associating with the law firm, Holland and Hart, which was at that time based in Denver, because I met this gentleman - a hard bitten old industry lawyer - at a conference and he was the one at Holland and Hart that was interested in regional offices. So, I could stay in Wyoming. 

Wendy Corr

And so my understanding is that you were instrumental in creating this Wyoming branch of Holland and Hart, which is a huge law firm, right? 

Marilyn Kite

Well, yes, it is, now. I mean, it was huge to me then, and once again, that's just luck and personal relationships. I met Frank Morrison at a Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute. It's a great program that happens every year. I didn't have any idea anybody would, you know, allow me to work for their law firm and stay in Wyoming. But I was lucky enough to get in right when they were thinking about the concept. Of course, the energy boom was going crazy and Rocky Mountain Regional states were where, at least where Frank's, imagination was. I think the Management Committee wondered about our little plan, and it turned out, okay. 

Wendy Corr

And what sort of law then did you specialize in?

Marilyn Kite

In Natural Resources and Environment. 

Wendy Corr

And so you stayed in that area?

Marilyn Kite

But as the economy ebbs and flows, it involves more litigation at some points in time and, not just straight, substantive environmental natural resources. The problems that the energy business faced, and some of them were employment, some of them were, you know, regulatory. Some of them were legislative. So it was a pretty broad area of the law, but always missed that underlying basis.

Wendy Corr

And then at what point did you set your eye on the bench instead of being on the other side? It's like, ‘You know, maybe I'd like to be a judge.’ Or was it a situation where somebody came to you and said, ‘Hey, I think you'd be great at that?’ 

Marilyn Kite

No, it was not even in a corner of my mind. My brother, Ken Stebner, he was a circuit judge initially, but he was appointed as the district judge in Rawlins, for Carbon County. And so that was the only judge that I knew, you know, personally, that I spent time with. And it was interesting to watch his challenges and his career. 

And you know, there was a vacancy, the two years or so before I was appointed, and my very dear friend from Fremont County, Justice Hill, was appointed to the Supreme Court. The Wyoming Supreme Court. So that was kind of eye opening, we had a lot of fun celebrating.

By that time, I had moved to Jackson, and there was no inkling that I would move back to Cheyenne. It just was not on my radar. And then there was another opening two years later, and I had several people suggest, and of course, there had never been a woman. I don't think a woman had made it in the final three of the judicial nominating commission, I'm not sure about that. Anyway, that's what urged me on. 

And, you know, I had a six year old son at the time, and I was facing the reality of how much time being a mother takes, and the practice of law requires a lot of travel. So it was interesting, and thought provoking for me, that I could actually stay in one place and do challenging work. 

And my brother was encouraging me and several of his friends were on the court. So it was truly not anything I thought of until that vacancy was announced, and I started getting phone calls. 

Wendy Corr

And so you said, ‘Sure, I'd love to be considered for this.’ So what was your first assignment?

Marilyn Kite

My first case, I can't quite remember, I think it was a criminal law case, which was a stretch for me, I hadn't done any criminal law. What you find out when you are serving in that capacity is that, you know, the whole gamut in Wyoming, every case, we don't have an intermediate appellate court. So every case that goes through a district court can come to the Supreme Court, all kinds of varieties.

And I believe my first one was, and you don't assign the subject matter area, it's a random assignment process as to which cases you end up with. If you're in the majority at the initial conference, the Chief Justice assigns the cases. And my good friend and the Chief Justice, Larry Lehman, at the time, was a former partner of my husband's - you know, this is a Wyoming kind of situation, you always know everybody.

Wendy Corr

Oh, it's a big small town, that’s what we are.

Marilyn Kite

There were some reasons why he did, because we were down a justice, and we had a justice with a conflict. And anyway, I got assigned one of the Campbell cases of the school finance saga. And that was very daunting, I'll say, a huge record and lots of complicated constitutional issues. And so I would, it's not that I was an expert in that area. It's just that that was my first real challenging assignment.

Wendy Corr

So one of the things I'm sure about being a Supreme Court justice is that you have to be constantly learning. You have to be constantly learning about the different subjects and the different topics and the different things that that come along, that come before you on the bench there. But you're also not alone, you've got staff and you've got your colleagues. Tell us about how it works, when you get a case that's unfamiliar to you, that the topic is unfamiliar to you.

Marilyn Kite

Well, it's true - with the district judges, too, they face the same variety and challenge of having to decide a case, let's say over a contract, intellectual property, labor law, everything, the whole gamut. And the way it works, when I was there, and I'm sure it's very similar to now, you know, you have a staff, you have a law clerk, who is essential. You have a great administrative staff, they support you, but you just have to dig in, and start understanding the substantive area that you're working in. 

Sometimes it's just a question of procedure. And of course, you are trained as a lawyer to figure out and study those kinds of questions, if it's simply a procedural question. But most of them somewhere in the process involve understanding as best you can, what the factual situation is, and what the circumstances of the parties are. And, you know, there's a tremendous exposure to family law, which I really didn't have any experience with. That to me was the hardest part because you know people in your own lives that have had similar problems, and then to be responsible for making those kinds of decisions is a real challenge.

Wendy Corr

When you stop and look at the fact that you were on the bench of the Wyoming Supreme Court for 15 years, were there some cases that really stuck out to you that you feel like, you know, we changed the course of things here. We made a foray into uncharted territory. Were there big cases like that, that made their mark on the state?

Marilyn Kite

Yeah, there certainly in individual situations around the state, there were significant cases in the oil and gas area, that were usually involving contract disputes, but they involved hundreds of millions of dollars. So the way the decision would come out had a significant impact on the industry. 

School finance is another one, I mean, Wyoming has a very unique constitutional provision - several of them - that relate to the responsibility for the state to pay for and operate a public school system. And certainly, the legislature is facing that again now, especially as economic conditions in the state change. So I think we made a significant impact at that point in time in terms of insisting (because that's what the law says, not because we believe it) on equality across the state. And in Wyoming's history, probably like many other states, it was not equal, because it was based on property taxes - and we all know that property taxes from county to county vary dramatically. So the quality of the education and the resources available vary dramatically. 

I wish I could remember the statistic, and I can't at this point remember the county, but comparing some of the smaller, poorer counties with Sweetwater and Campbell, where most of the industry and development was occurring, and how to wrestle with that. 

You know, we had a case that does stand out to me, but we were governed by the law that existed at that time, I'm not sure we made it change, but it was sentencing a minor to life in prison. And the District Court had done that and our job was to review - there were lots of cases pending in front of the US Supreme Court at the same time. So our decision, we knew, wasn't going to be final. But it was a tough one, it was a hard one for me, just because of the record and the science of you know, children's brains, young people's brains. Now we know so much more about their development, and you know, whether they're a lost cause for their entire life, or whether they had an opportunity to pay their debt to society and come back out. So some of those are the ones that strike me.

Wendy Corr

At what point in your time on the Supreme Court, did you become chief justice? Because again, that's another barrier that you broke - the first female Supreme Court Justice, then the first female Chief Justice in the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Marilyn Kite

I was very proud of it. And it's like getting two jobs or three jobs - poor Chief Justice Fox knows that right now, she's in the middle of her term. But what I need to clarify is, it is a rotating position. And I was the first, but it wasn't like the five justices selecting the chief justice. I mean, it could be, but as a matter of practice, that's how it works at the Wyoming Supreme Court. 

You know, the US Supreme Court, a person is appointed as chief justice and serves in that position until they no longer serve, but that's not the case in state court. So it was my turn. 

Well, I have to clarify that - when it was my turn, that was a tough day. I just couldn't fulfill my job as a mother and take on Chief Justice. My son was in, probably the beginning of junior high, and there was lots and lots going on, I thought it would get easier the older they got. All you mothers out there know that's not true. And I just felt like I couldn't do justice to the job. 

But I knew everybody would think, you know, it's the first woman, and she's shirking her duty, and all of that, and I really worried about that decision. But I went to our chief and talked to him about it, and talked to other members of the court, and they were very supportive. And it turned out that the person next in line was Justice Voight from Douglas. He didn't know it at the time, but we were doing a massive remodel to the building. And he was the kind of personality, when you look at the kinds of things you'd have to look at, that would be very good at that. I'm not sure I would have been very good at it. So the timing, it didn't hurt the court.

It was hard for me, I was prepared for people to be questioning whether a woman could do it, you know, the whole gender thing. And I got the most wonderful reaction from lawyers and people I knew around the state that were pleased, and I guess proud of me, that I would take that position, and not at all judgmental, like you are trying to shirk your duty. 

So it's a tremendous, you know, you're the head of a branch of the three branches. And there's an incredible amount of additional work to be done. But it's also exhilarating, because you can make a difference and try to improve the courts.

Wendy Corr

So when your turn first came up, you passed. And so you came back to it.

Marilyn Kite

And that never happened before, by the way. No one had ever passed up on being chief. But I knew, I had enough left in my term that I had another chance.

Wendy Corr

And so you are a mother, you're balancing raising a child with this really high profile job. Was that the only time that that really came into a conflict for you? Sitting on the Supreme Court and being a mom?

Marilyn Kite

Oh, no, you know, like every other woman that works in a demanding job, there were conflicts all the time. I felt like - I mean, my husband was a busy trial attorney, he was traveling, you know, I took my son with me on several trips. But you know, it's just the balance that women have to - usually the women - have to juggle. And I hope I did a decent job in both. But you know, when I retired and they had a ceremony and my husband was of course saying nice things about how, well, he did have to cook a little bit more.

But I also had, which is my own choice, I stayed in Jackson and commuted to Cheyenne. So once a month when the court was in session, I was completely gone, and the rest of the time I was working in my barn in the loft. 

Wendy Corr

Oh, nice!

Marilyn Kite

Yeah, which was nice. Except, you know, the travel was challenging. In fact, that's why I retired a little bit early. It was just too much to wrestle with in the winter.

Anyway, there's a lot of times where it felt like you weren't doing either job well, because you had them both at the same time. But we now have a majority of women on the Supreme Court and so they've all got to do that juggling game. 

Wendy Corr

That is absolutely phenomenal. Now tell me about your son. What's he doing? What does he - obviously he must have turned out okay, with all the balance that his mom had to do!

Marilyn Kite

He didn't have any desire to go to law school or study the law. He was fascinated from early on with anything related to an engine, and he loved welding and he ended up getting his welding certification and is a welder. 

Wendy Corr

That’s a great job, that’s wonderful.

Marilyn Kite

We feel like we did, we're lucky to have such a wonderful son. When he was little, he knew that being on the Supreme Court was a big deal. Apparently he talked about a little more than he should have. And I went in to pick him up one day from probably first grade, first or second grade, and this other little boy came up to me and said, ‘Is it true, you're the judge of the world?’ And I said, ‘Not quite, but I am the judge of his world.’

Wendy Corr

Oh, my goodness. Well, he was proud of you. That's fantastic. 

Marilyn Kite

Yeah, he wasn't at the same time. When he got into high school, and I didn't know this until later, he had a rather limited social life because nobody wanted to invite the judge's kid to various social events, shall we say.

Wendy Corr

Okay, so speaking of your family, though, that gets me on another track. Your husband was an accomplished trial lawyer. Did any of his cases ever come to the Supreme Court? 

Marilyn Kite

Well, none of his, but some of his firm's. So you just swear yourself off and take yourself completely out of it. I mean, there were other cases where I had somebody that was a friend or, one time I swore myself off because the lawyer was a close friend. I mean, all the judges face that kind of situation, so that was pretty easy. Because he was so busy, he wasn’t too interested in what was going on, and I was too, so we kind of were able to, you know, capsulize our lives and stay away from any kind of conflict.

Wendy Corr

So I'm going to kind of switch gears here again, but one of the remarkable things, obviously, and I'm sure you get it all the time, the fact that you were the one to break that barrier - do you get asked to speak a lot? Do you get asked to kind of represent the cause of women in business and in law and things like that?

Marilyn Kite

Well, I certainly did over the 20 years or so since I was on the bench. You know, you get a little bit older, you start to get obsolete, so. That was fun, because I think people, you know, other women lawyers needed the proof that somebody could actually proceed in the profession. So that was fun, you know, to be able to give that kind of not guidance, in a way, but at least the evidence that it was possible, that anything was possible. That's that's only, you know, it's a question of luck, and timing and everything else. I mean, there were lots of good women practicing law when I was appointed, but not as many that were as old as I, again, have a certain number of years of experience. And so the timing was perfect for me.

Wendy Corr

When we're talking about how you have seen that change, now, there's a lot of women lawyers, what are some other ways? Because again, you're born and raised Wyoming, and you've seen your home state change from the time that you were old enough to really be aware of other happenings in the state, to where you are now. How have you seen your beloved Wyoming change, in the years that you've been doing your job?

Marilyn Kite

Well, lots of ways probably. Well, not just recently - but lots of change over time. 

My grandmother came to Hanna, Wyoming in 1902, I think it was, or 1903. (She came) from England, and my mother's family came from Ireland and Illinois. And they came out in about the same timeframe and homesteaded outside of Daniel, in a little, it's not really a town but it had a post office. Merna, Wyoming. And she grew up there, Merna and Daniel, and then moved to Laramie later.

They had this ranch, they homestead at the ranch then the Depression hit, and they lost the ranch to the bank. My uncle was able to get it back, and it’s still in the family, which is great. 

But my dad had a tough go in Hanna, he lost his grandfather and his father in mining accidents. And my grandmother ran the Hanna Hotel, which was a boarding house, basically. Yeah, she was a force of nature, Mary Ford. 

So they had it tough, economically at least, and in other ways, childhoods. And our opportunities, and University, and the ability for all people to be educated and trained and have much better economic futures, that changed over time. And you know, there's still people struggling, obviously, it's not like a change for everybody. But the opportunities were greater. I mean, Wyoming was a tough place, you know, at the turn of the century. My grandmother used to say, ‘They always talk about the good old days, but if they really knew, they weren't so good.’ 

So there's that kind of a change, just as the society and our country has evolved and developed. 

You know, I think more recently, the change that is not quite as positive as the change my parents experienced, it has to do with what's going on in the country, and lots and lots of new people. Not that we don't want new people, you know, Wyoming spent all this time and money and effort to have economic development, then we get economic development, and we don't want any more people. So we're sort of schizophrenic that way. 

But with the pandemic, and then just the attention to Wyoming, it is striking how many more people there are in places that we used to think were our own little private spots. My family, my dad started hunting in the Red Desert 60 years ago, or 70 years ago, and that became our playground, the desert. And, you know, you never saw hardly anybody, ever. And that's definitely changed. 

And you know, some of it's good, because it got protected in certain areas, although there's always disputes about that. But we coexisted with oil and gas business out there, and there was never a conflict. But now that brings more humans, more cars, more off-road vehicles, more everything. So those places that we, all of us, have our own special place in Wyoming. And those have gotten to be harder to enjoy, like we used to. 

And I just, I feel like the current political climate has, you know, I just - maybe it's because I'm too old - I just don't remember… You know, my dad was a very opinionated man. And he wrote more letters to the editor than anybody in this state, probably. But he believed in talking to people, and he had lots of good friends that were of a different party. And that was just, he almost relished that, because he loved a good argument, you know. But it was substantive issues, it wasn't all vitriol. And it wasn't, it wasn't attacking people's integrity, to make your point. And I feel that change, like everybody does in the whole country. That's the saddest thing for me. And, you know, we'll get through it, we'll come out the other side - who knows exactly what Wyoming's going to look like, but you can't change the country. And the country is the best in the world, to enjoy, to learn about yourself, to get lost. To be in blizzards, to do all of the things that, you know, we experience in Wyoming.

Wendy Corr

Marilyn, this has been just a fascinating and very fun interview and conversation, and I'm so grateful that we were able to make this work. My last question for you, Marilyn, is, what advice do you have for women who might feel like they're heading into a career, or they have a desire to go into a career that might be male dominated, or might be something that they just, they never thought, ‘Well, I might be good at that.’ What's your best advice to those women - and men as well - but to anybody who's really thinking, this might be out of my depth?

Marilyn Kite

Well, I think first of all, you have to be committed to being the best at whatever that field is, as you can possibly be, then there won’t be a debate about whether you're a man or a woman. 

And not to be too thin skinned, because, you know - men would feel the same way, if they were coming into a woman-dominated field - there are differences in terms of how you might approach a problem. And that's good, because having more opinions and more experiences, usually in any field, makes people more effective. 

So I think, not to eliminate opportunities because you think there aren't a lot of women in that particular field. But if you're going to go into that field, just be the best substantively that you can, and then there's no argument. I mean, today, it's so much more available, so many of those fields are available that weren't in the past. I mean, you know, it's interesting, I just love Climb Wyoming, I don't know how many people out there recognize that organization. But what they have done for women who needed a good paying job is unbelievable. And I think, they're working in all kinds of areas of the industries in Wyoming. But they've shown that they can do the job. And so we have, we have them to thank for the next young woman that wants to come up in that field. 

I can't think of an area where you'd say, well, you can't do that, because you're a woman. And I don't think young women think that way, either. But be prepared to be the best that you can be, and it'll all flow.

Wendy Corr

That's wonderful. Marilyn, thank you so much for your time today, and have a marvelous “retirement.”

Marilyn Kite

In quotes.

Wendy Corr

And stay active, because I know that's something that you do enjoy, is staying active. 

Marilyn Kite

Thank you. This has been a lot of fun. And the one thing I didn't mention about coming to Laramie, is we are so enjoying being this close to UW sports, and the basketball season has been amazing. And Go Pokes!

Wendy Corr

Go Pokes! Marilyn, thank you, thank you for being an amazing example for women, and example of the possibilities that we have here in Wyoming.

Marilyn Kite

Well, thank you for the invitation. I enjoyed the discussion a lot, and I'm gonna tune in. I haven't been listening. I've been missing out. 

Wendy Corr

Well, we've got a great string of guests, and you are most certainly one of our best guests. So thank you so much. 

Marilyn Kite

Thank you very much.

Wendy Corr 

And thank you folks for tuning in to The Roundup. I've been your host, Wendy Corr. Tune in next week, we're going to chat with another great Wyoming personality about news and views and issues and topics that are important to you. Have a great week!

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