The First Woman to be Secretary of the Interior

Gale Norton’s controversial legacy

In addition to being the state’s first female attorney general, Gale Norton was involved with landmark Colorado legal issues like Amendment 2 and the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. / LAW WEEK FILE

Gale Norton in 2001 became the first female U.S. Secretary of the Interior. While she managed to shatter that glass ceiling, Norton also stirred controversy from her time as the Colorado Attorney General and at the Department of the Interior.


After receiving a law degree from the University of Denver, Norton began working as a senior attorney at the Mountain States Legal Foundation in 1979. She held a number of federal positions between 1984 and 1990 at the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior before becoming Colorado’s first female AG in 1991. 

Norton led the defense team for the state in litigation challenging Colorado’s controversial Amendment 2, which removed the protected rights status for gay individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court later invalidated the amendment with its 1996 ruling in Romer v. Evans. 

While serving as the state AG, Norton also campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat in 1996 but lost the Republican primary nomination to Wayne Allard after delivering a speech on states’ rights during the Civil War. According to the Washington Post in a 2001 article, Norton said, “we certainly had bad facts in that case where we were defending state sovereignty by defending slavery… But we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives.”

While Norton didn’t endorse slavery, according to that same article, her comments caused apparent outrage from two environmental groups who said to the Washington Post they felt the remarks were distasteful and dismissive of the rights of people of color. The Post also noted comments from Norton’s speech that expressed distaste for federal requirements under the Americans With Disabilities Act that led to a wheelchair ramp addition to the Colorado statehouse. According to the 2001  Washington Post article, “she called it ‘a really ugly addition to the state Capitol.’” But no suit was filed against the Bush Administration’s ADA rules.

In 1998, Norton also participated with 45 other state attorneys general in the negotiation of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, a landmark settlement with four Big Tobacco companies facing hundreds of lawsuits over tobacco products’ harmful effects on lung health. The settlement remains one of the largest in U.S. history with billions of dollars paid in annual installments forever, starting in 2000 at $4 billion and incrementally increasing with the rates of inflation according to the original settlement documents. 

Because of term limitations, Norton was unable to seek a third term as the state AG and, in 1999, she became senior counsel at Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. 

Norton was appointed Secretary of the Interior in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush, becoming the first woman in the position. 

While in that position, in 2006, Norton granted bids to Royal Dutch Shell for acreage larger than what is typically allowed by the Bureau of Land Management, according to 2010 coverage by Politico. Politico reported the move triggered then-Inspector General Mary Kendall to open an investigation into possible conflicts of interest as Norton joined Shell’s staff nine months later. 

According to the 2010 Politico coverage, Kendall filed her report with the Justice Department, which ultimately declined to press charges. The 2010 article noted Kendall’s report said “the Office of Government Ethics suggested that Norton ‘played a significant role in BLM’s oil shale program’” while she acted in the secretary position. Politico reported Kendall also suggested Norton’s actions should warrant a “lifetime ban on communicating with the federal government regarding the program.” 

According to Politico, Kendall’s report said, “we did not find evidence that Shell committed any criminal violation, but we did discover that someone in BLM provided Shell with information, which allowed Shell to submit a complete bid document on the same day that the Federal Register notice soliciting applications for leases was published.” She went on to note that other bids didn’t come in to the agency until more than 80 days later. 

The DOJ officially closed the investigation in 2010 according to Politico.

Norton has served at multiple organizations in various legal roles dealing with environmental regulation since joining Shell in December 2006. While she was serving as the first female Secretary of the Interior, Norton managed more than 20% of the land area of the U.S. and roughly 70,000 employees according to information published from the National Ocean Industries Association.

– Jess Brovsky-Eaker

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