Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Kari Gray is a fixer.
Since the Supreme Court of the Territory of Wyoming was organized in 1870, four of 59 justices have been women. The first was appointed in 2000. Gray was sworn in in 2018. Hard work, tenacity, sticktoitiveness and dedication got her to where she is today, and though she earned her position, she and other women justices are fixing an age-old problem: Lack of women in leadership roles.
“I wouldn’t want to be in any of the roles that I’ve been in because I am a woman,” Gray said. “But I am qualified to do, and I am a woman. Because of that, I bring a background to the table, and I do think it is helpful as a role model to girls who are trying to figure out their way.”
Hers, though, is a challenging job for a man or woman. Ruth Critchfield, who has worked with Justice Gray for over eight years, said Gray is a strong, confident woman who is fair, just, compassionate and empathetic.
“She believes in assisting others in understanding their issues and finding ways to solve their problems,” Critchfield said.
Gray’s great-grandparents homesteaded in Niobrara County, the “most sparsely populated county in the most sparsely populated state.”
“It is a place where people know you and you know everyone else,” Gray said. “One of the greatest things about Wyoming is that you have an opportunity to really know people, to care about them and have a deeper connection than when there is a bigger population of people around.”
Gray’s great-grandmother wanted to attend Jireh College, which operated in Lusk from 1909 until 1920, but in that time and place, her father didn’t see the benefit of sending his daughter to college. So she made her own success.
“She became a head cashier at the Stockman’s Bank in Lusk, so she was a self-made success at a time when women didn’t hold jobs outside of the home,” Gray said. “At the same time she raised three boys.”
Gray’s great-grandma became something of a family legend.
“We were always really proud of who she was, and how successful she was. She was my role model, even without me noticing it,” she said.
Gray’s mother was a nurse and administrator, and her parents told their three daughters they could be anything they wanted to be.
“Both my parents had the attitude that we could fish, we could hunt, we could play sports and we could do well in school,” Gray said. “Those things were expected of us, and that whatever we did, it was expected that we would do our best at it. It wasn’t about being a boy or a girl, it was that you were expected to do your best at whatever you were doing.”
Gray took that work ethic to the University of Wyoming, and eventually to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where she earned a degree in business finance. She returned to Wyoming and earned a juris doctorate with honor from the University of Wyoming School of Law in 1987. She married a rancher, and the two moved to Douglas. Gray and her husband operated the family ranch while she was also a partner in Gray and Associates. She immediately got into child support enforcement, at a time when Wyoming hadn’t done much to support families in need.
“There was a national program to establish enforced child support, in an effort to help single parents so they could be self-sufficient and not have to be on public assistance or state aid,” Gray said. “Wyoming wasn’t doing well with that, so I took that on.”
When she left that role, Wyoming was recognized as having the most improved child support program in the United States.
At former Gov. Jim Geringer’s request, Gray then served as director of the Department of Family Services, putting that department where the governor wanted before becoming a trust officer at the Converse County Bank in Douglas. There, she helped institute a technological shift to bring the bank into the 21st century, and parallel to that, she and her husband renovated and revamped Howard’s General Store outside of Glendo.
“I am kind of a fixer. I go into things that are maybe struggling and I think ‘How can I do this that I make it better?’” Gray said.
Former Gov. Matt Mead, a law school colleague of Gray’s, approached Gray to help on his campaign, and then asked her to be his chief of staff. Lori Emmert, who did administration policy work for Mead, worked alongside Gray every day for eight years.
“She is energetic and tenacious, and her personality is such that she is going to get to the bottom of an issue, whatever that is,” Emmert said. “Kari Gray is a person who is most focused on making sure (citizens) were heard, and her assumption was always to get all the information and to fix things when there was a problem.”
Not only is she a fixer, but she is also selfless, Emmert said.
“She is really, truly motivated by the greater good,” Emmert said.
Gray served as chief of staff for the bulk of Mead’s term before being appointed to the Wyoming Supreme Court last year.
“The rule of law, and the important role it plays in our whole society, from the constitution of the United States to the constitution of our state, is such a critical part of what we do,” Gray said. “It’s a surreal experience to be a part of that, and to have a job that I sought and wanted.”
To get there took hard work, even if she took a circuitous path.
“You have to work hard, have goals, and set your mind toward achieving those goals, but there is usually more than one way to get there,” Gray said. “I tried a whole bunch of things, because at the end of the day, I like to take on hard problems and try to solve them. That is just who I am, and why this job works really well for me.”
And she has never lacked for strong role models.
“My mom and my grandma were examples to me, and they never said I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. At a very young ages, it’s important that people aren’t emphasizing that a child is a boy or a girl, but that people are saying you can do anything you want to do.
“That is a huge message for girls: That you can be anything you want to be. And we expect the best. Whether you want to be a teacher or a stay at home mom or a judge or a doctor, you just be the best at what you do,” Gray said.
She cited former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Sandra Day O’Connor, who said, “As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we will all be better off for it.”
“That’s the goal,” Gray said. “For the barriers to fall, to make it a natural situation where anybody who has the drive and the desire to do something has the opportunity to do it.”
Editor’s note: On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming territory passed the first law in United States history recognizing women’s right to vote and hold public office.
At The Sheridan Press, we are counting down to the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the Equality State with a special series inspired by the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s “Year of Wyoming Women.” Highlighting a different inspiring Wyoming woman, the features are published on the 10th of every month. Explore the full series here!