Judge Gail Nichols looks forward to skiing, family and public service in retirement

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
Judge Gail Nichols' last day on the bench is today.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

For District Court Judge Gail Nichols, it’s time to ski.

That’s because after seven years on the bench — two in Glenwood Springs and the past five in Aspen — the 65-year-old Nichols calls it quits today and retires.

“I just really feel like I’ve had a great career,” she said earlier this week. “I lucked out and ended up in Colorado, and even better, in Aspen.”

A native of Massachusetts, Nichols came out West to the University of Colorado for her undergraduate degree. She graduated in 1972, but instead of jumping straight into the job market, Nichols traveled to Aspen in January 1973 to visit a friend who was a coach at the Aspen Valley Ski Club.

She stayed here that ski season, working as a waitress at the Crossroads Cafe in Snowmass Village and enjoying the snow. Nichols also met her future husband, longtime Aspen Skiing Co. employee Billy La Couter, during that season, though he was attached to someone else at the time, she said.

Nichols and La Couter would wait 30 more years before tying the knot.

Nichols returned to the East Coast and graduated from Vermont Law School, located in the town of South Royalton, in 1980. From there she spent her first year out of law school clerking for a federal court of appeals judge in Philadelphia before heading north to work at a private law firm in New York City where Rudy Giuliani was working before he became a U.S. attorney, she said.

She stayed at that firm until 1985, when she headed across the Hudson River to work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey under future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was then a U.S. attorney. Nichols stayed there until 1990, when she again headed back across the Hudson to work as a criminal defense lawyer, mainly in the federal courts, for a private firm in New York.

In 1996, she returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey as head of the criminal division.

“Being a U.S. attorney is a great job,” she said. “It’s a hard job to get, so the people I was working with were very smart and very accomplished.”

Three years later, however, the West beckoned.

“I got sick of New Jersey,” Nichols said. “I still liked the (U.S. Attorney’s Office) job, but I was ready for something new.”

She said she wanted to return to Colorado, but she had no job. So she took six months off, moved to Vail, bought a place to live and spent the summer hiking and hanging out in the Rocky Mountains. She soon landed a job at a private firm in Denver, but wanted to come to the Roaring Fork Valley.

So in 2002, she landed a job as the Pitkin County Court prosecutor handling misdemeanors in front of Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely.

“I begged for that job,” she said. “I knew I was getting married, and I needed a job.”

She worked there until 2005, when incoming District Attorney Colleen Truden cleaned house and fired Nichols and several others. Nichols took the summer off and lived in a house her parents owned in Vermont.

Then, in December 2005, Truden became the first Colorado district attorney ever to be recalled by voters. Martin Beeson, the new DA, hired Nichols back, and she began prosecuting felonies in Aspen.

Then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter appointed her to the bench in 2008. She spent her first two years in Glenwood Springs before moving to Aspen’s District Court in 2010.

She said she’s enjoyed being a judge for many reasons.

“It’s something new every day,” Nichols said. “There’s never a shortage of work. And you really get to know the community, because I haven’t really lived here a lot.”

She said she’ll miss those things as well as interacting with lawyers and members of the court clerk’s staff. She said she won’t miss handling divorces — they are “incredibly stressful” — and waking up in the middle of the night and thinking she should have done or said something else.

But, like her relocation to Colorado from New Jersey, it was time to move on, Nichols said.

She plans to spend the summers on the East Coast visiting her 92-year-old mother, who still drives and lives by herself. She also wants to spent time with her husband, who is 76.

Thanks to Billy La Couter’s 48 years at Skico, they have lifetime ski passes, and she plans to take full advantage of it.

“I’m a very avid skier,” Nichols said. “My husband skied more than 100 days last year. I don’t think I’ll ski that many.”

She said her husband is “devoted to Ajax, so we rarely ski anywhere else.”

“So one of my goals is to get him to Aspen Highlands and Snowmass,” Nichols said.

First on the agenda, however, is a two-week trip to Peru next month, where she plans to hike to Machu Picchu.

After that, she said she plans to remain in Aspen and will likely volunteer at a nonprofit that provides civil legal advice to those who can’t afford it, as well as help teach English to Spanish speakers in the valley.

“I’m looking forward to retirement,” Nichols said.

Fernandez-Ely said she thinks of Nichols as a “role model” and has been grateful to have her in Aspen for her legal expertise, kind personality and strong work ethic.

“She’s always available to talk to,” Fernandez-Ely said. “She’s always cheerful — she comes into work and she’s smiling. She’s always bringing pizza for everybody. She looks great.

“I’m going to miss her. I hope she comes back to visit.”