Boulder Public Defender Megan Ring Taking Over State Office
After more than 20 years in the Boulder Public Defender’s Office — including the last six as the head of the office — Megan Ring will become the new Colorado State Public Defender this week, the first woman to hold the position in Colorado.
Ring on Tuesday will replace Doug Wilson, who is retiring, and will oversee the entire state’s public defender system after 22 years in the Boulder public defender’s office. She was appointed by a commission from a slate of seven all-female applicants to fulfill the last year of Wilson’s term, and if everything goes well, Ring said the commission would have the chance to renew her appointment rather than go through another selection process after that year.
“Criminal defense is my passion, especially in Colorado where we have a state system and it’s such a strong system which allows you to practice at a really high level,” Ring said. “So the opportunity to try to lead the system is something I’m very excited about.”
Wilson, who was the one who appointed Ring to lead the Boulder office, said he made that decision six years ago because he admired her skills as an attorney and her potential as an administrator, and said he is looking forward to her applying those skills at the state level.
“This is a job with a lot of external communication, external politics, and I think Megan clearly has the skill set to make that happen,” Wilson said. “And she’s the first woman to have this job. It’s pretty cool.”
While Wilson hasn’t made a lot of retirement plans past Tuesday — “Golf, a cigar, and smoke some ribs” — he said he will still be active on some national legal issues and will always be willing to lend Ring ear.
“I want to see her succeed and see her office succeed, and I’m here to help,” Wilson said.
Just as Wilson once appointed Ring, one of Ring’s first duties will be to name her own successor in the Boulder office. But after that, Ring said she wants to address some of her key criminal justice reform issues.
“I have the opportunity at a much bigger level to try to work at policies and criminal justice reform that will hopefully reduce the amount of people who are incarcerated simply because they are poor, or mentally ill or addicts,” Ring said. “I think it’s exciting because I think (Boulder County District Attorney) Michael Dougherty is a believer in criminal justice reform so I think things are going to happen in Boulder. But I’m more excited to try to do that work at the state level.”
‘This is what I want to do’
Ring took a slightly roundabout route to criminal law, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a business degree and initially working at a Wall Street accounting firm out of college.
“I did that for about three years, and I hated it,” Ring said. “I hated that it was just about money, and making money, and nothing more than making money.”
Ironically, Ring was about to be a trailblazer in that position when she had the opportunity to become the first woman on a big audit for the firm. But she knew it wasn’t her calling.
“I just couldn’t do it, and I quit,” Ring said.
Ring moved to San Diego where she taught aerobics and worked as a cocktail waitress while she tried to figure out her next move.
“Three years in, I was like, ’I gotta do something with my brain again,” Ring said.
So Ring started applying to law schools and got into the University of Colorado. While she was in school, she interned in the Jefferson County public defender’s office and knew she had found her calling.
“I felt like I came home,” Ring said. “It was just kind of amazing that as soon as I was there I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do, these are the kind of people I want to be around.’”
Ring graduated from CU in 1996 and got a job as a public defender. While new attorneys have to be willing to work anywhere in the state, Ring just so happened to wind up in the Boulder office later that year. And, up until her last court appearance Friday, it is where she has been ever since.
“I thought it was going to be more bittersweet,” Ring said of her last day in court. “But I think I’m so excited about this new challenge. Although I’m sad, I’m not as sad as I thought I would be because I’m just so excited about this next step.”
‘She understands the whole picture’
Ring said that she does not think the fact that she has spent her entire career in Boulder will be to her detriment, since she has tried all sorts of cases and has had to adapt with four district attorney administrations. She also said she thinks the working partnerships she fostered in Boulder will help in her new role.
“Boulder has always tried to be a place where people collaborate, where the public defender was always invited to the table, so I think being in the number of committees I’ve been on and trying to problem solve in Boulder is really going to translate well to working on those issues at the statewide level,” Ring said.
Greg Brown, the head of Boulder County’s probation department, has known Ring since she started out at the Boulder office and wrote a letter to the commission that chose Ring on her behalf, attesting to that ability to work with others.
“She is incredibly bright, she works really, really hard no matter what task she takes on, and she sees where there are problems and is strategic about how she approaches those,” Brown told the Camera. “She is always part of the solution.”
Even those on the other side of the aisle said Ring was always willing to listen to all sides and concerns.
“I always found Megan to be very thoughtful and reasonable on issues, even though she didn’t always agree with me,” former Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett said. “This is a pretty active political job, and I think Megan will do great.”
Brown said that some people in the criminal justice system can get caught up in the adversarial nature of the justice system, but said Ring was always able to balance the needs of her client with what would make the justice system better.
“She understands the whole picture; she’s not just blaming the system or trying to get a client off,” Brown said. “She’s as passionate today as the day I met her, and she’s going to take that to the state public defender’s office and get them all excited about the work they do and how important it is.”
Ring said one of her priorities is ensuring the almost 900 public defense employees feel supported and passionate about their work in what can be a trying profession.
“We’ve gotten so big that we need to get back to taking care of those people and making sure that they realize that myself and the people I surround myself with are there to help them do their jobs,” Ring said. “Doing this work is really, really emotionally difficult. ... So making sure that those people everyday feel that I’m there supporting them and that I remember what it’s like to be a county court lawyer with 200 cases, that’s one of my main missions.”
Mitchell Byars: 303-473-1329, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/mitchellbyars