Mari Newman ’88: Die-hard civil rights lawyer

You have probably heard of some of the cases Mari Newman ’88 has worked on: Elijah McClain, Guantanamo Bay detainees, LGBTQ marriage equality, and more.

The award-winning civil rights attorney has litigated high-profile discrimination cases in her commitment to “stand beside people who need their voices amplified.” For more than two decades, she has represented the disenfranchised, including taking on cases of LGBTQ rights and racial justice, long before they were mainstream issues with broad support.

“My work involves using the privilege I have—as a white person who is fluent in English, is able-bodied, and has means and a law degree—to serve as an advocate for people who need it,” says Newman, who was named Denver’s 2022 “Lawyer of the Year” for Civil Rights Law.

She says her work sometimes reminds her of her French existentialist literature class at Colorado Academy, in which she and her classmates studied Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

“My work often feels like rolling a boulder up a hill and watching it come rolling back down,” she says. “My sense of obligation stemming from my own privilege and my overarching drive for social justice are what keep me going.”

Newman (right of center with a bullhorn) speaks on the Colorado Capitol steps in favor of police accountability law.

Taking the unpopular cases

Newman’s drive for social justice has taken her into the spotlight of well-known court cases. She has represented the Estate of Elijah McClain, a peaceful violinist killed by Aurora, Colo., police officers in 2019, and the Estate of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher killed by Denver sheriffs in 2010, among many other victims of unconstitutional government conduct.

“Against all odds, we won the Booker case, which was, at the time, the largest verdict in a civil rights case in Colorado,” says Newman, a partner at the Denver firm Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, where she’s worked since 2002. “We had the naïve hope that the jury’s resounding award against the city and its officers would change the way they treated people in custody. It didn’t.”

When another Black man, Michael Marshall, was killed in a Denver jail a month later, she represented his estate, too. And she was at the table with City of Denver officials, negotiating a commitment from the city to provide full-time mental health care in jails, as well as reforms to try to prevent future deaths at the hands of Denver sheriffs. In an effort to further more systemic change, Newman helped draft and lobby for a 2020 comprehensive statewide police reform law, which has served as a national model.

Since 2005, Newman has represented five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. One of them is still held there today.

“In the beginning, it was an extremely unpopular case. Some colleagues worried it would end my career, but I was proud to have the opportunity to work on the case,” she says. “These men were being held without charges being brought against them and never had the chance to confront their accuser—things we believe are integral to our justice system. And they were tortured relentlessly enough to confess to impossible things.”

She remembers leaving her toddler-age daughter to travel to Yemen to visit the families of several Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Her daughter is now a teenager, and Newman is still working to get one of those men out of prison.

Newman at Guantanamo Bay in 2010

Sisyphean progress

In addition to justice at Guantanamo Bay, Newman has been working for many years on LGBTQ rights. She started immediately after law school, taking on what were then cutting-edge cases on behalf of transgender people facing discrimination.

She brought the 2014  Federal court case that resulted in marriage equality in Colorado. She helped draft language to add LGBTQ protections to Colorado laws and testified at the state legislature every year for seven years.

“Early on, lawmakers would ask questions that weren’t just uneducated but downright offensive,” she says. “Year after year, we worked to educate lawmakers until they understood the importance of judging people by the work they do, not their identity.”

When she remembers the 1986 United States Supreme Court case that criminalized consensual same-sex relationships—which happened while she was a CA student—she can hardly believe how far LGBTQ rights have come.

“In the last couple years, there’s been a remarkable shift, where acceptance of previously unpopular causes has hit the mainstream,” she says. “These LGBTQ issues, as well as issues relating to the criminal justice system and police brutality, have only now finally started to become nationally recognized. After working on unpopular cases for the last two decades, it’s a welcome change.”

As a result of her work, Newman has endured retaliation and harassment, including hate mail hand-delivered to her home. Still, she feels hopeful.

“Recently, the progress on these issues has been phenomenal,” she says. “I hope it’s a real and lasting transformation.”

Newman with the MLK Award flanked by former Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife Wilma

Skills you use every day

While Newman has worked on many important legal cases, one sticks out in her memory for how it connected her back to CA.

One day in 2013, she received a call from someone who had read about her work on a case, which had been heavily covered in the news. It was her Seventh Grade English teacher, Becky Callaway.

“It was 30 years after she was my teacher, and she called out of the blue to tell me she was proud of me,” says Newman, who attended CA from Kindergarten through 12th Grade. “Hearing from her was one of the most impactful things.”

The call illustrated the strong connections that CA fosters, Newman says. And though she considers herself a lifelong non-conformist, she says there were people at CA who challenged her to think even more deeply.

“Throughout childhood, I embraced a more progressive viewpoint and tried to find opportunities to discuss radical ideas, and there were CA teachers who challenged my views on the issues that interested me,” she says. “We didn’t always agree, but I learned critical thinking and diplomacy at CA, which I use in my work every day.”