Current Issue / DU Alumni

Magistrate judge seeks justice for all

Patricia Coan

Patricia Coan

Patricia Coan, JD ’81, always saw herself as someone “trying to make some sort of social justice happen.”

That vision has taken her on a career path from critical care nursing to practicing law to her current role as a magistrate judge for the U.S. District of Colorado. Renewed for a second, eight-year term in 2004, Coan is the first woman to serve full time in this position.

Magistrate judges were created by Congress to assist U.S. district judges. They manage pretrial matters and settlement negotiations for most civil cases, try a small percentage of civil cases, and also handle initial felony proceedings, misdemeanors and petty offenses.

“Of the 3,305 overall filings last year, 487 were criminal and the rest were civil, so we mostly handle civil cases,” Coan says.

Such cases can involve any federal law, including those dealing with employment discrimination; patents, copyright and trademarks; securities and pensions; First Amendment rights and wrongful arrest.

One of the biggest challenges of her job is the workload, says Coan, noting that the Colorado district has just five full-time and two part-time magistrate judges. Another challenge is “the variety and complexity of the legal issues.”

But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I loved being a trial lawyer, and I love being a magistrate judge,” she says. “I really see being a judge as an extension of being a lawyer.”

Coan decided to attend law school and specialize in labor and employment law after meeting frustration as a nurse trying to organize other nurses into a union. At DU, she met her mentor, Professor John Linn, for whom she drafted arbitration decisions and worked as a teaching assistant.

“When I was in law school, I was a single parent of two young girls. If not for him, I would have quit,” Coan says. “He was the reason I’m here today. He reminded me of what I really love — researching the law.”

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