Judge Gary M. Jackson was awarded the inaugural Judge Wiley Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award by the Center for Legal Inclusiveness at its February 29, 2020 Ball for All Gala. Judge Jackson is a third-generation Coloradan and has been a pillar of the Colorado legal community since graduating from CU law school in 1970. He has worked in Colorado’s public sector, private sector, and the judiciary for 50 years. Among his many other accomplishments and endeavors, he co-founded and currently co-chairs the Steering Committee of the Diversity on the Bench Coalition.
It wasn’t until 1957 that Colorado had its first non-white judge on any level. Mayor William F. Nicholson appointed James C. Flanigan, the grandson of slaves, to the municipal court after serving eight years as Denver’s first black district attorney. Nine years later, Judge Flanigan became Colorado’s first African-American District Court Judge.
As of October 2018, 61 years after Judge Flanigan’s appointment, out of the 181 District Court Judges in the state of Colorado, there was still only one black District Court Judge, the Hon. William Robbins of Denver, and he had announced his retirement; and out of the 29 Appellate Court Judges, there was only one African-American judge, the Hon. Karen Ashby, and she announced her retirement shortly after Judge Robbins. The lack of judicial diversity extends to Hispanic-American, Native-American, and Asian-American communities as well as to women. The potential for zero black judges on the District Court and Appellate Courts was real in Colorado.
These demographic numbers are more than just an embarrassment to our bar association, to the legal profession, and to the citizens of Colorado. To maintain a representative democracy and a strong republic, all three branches of municipal, city, county, state, and federal government must reflect the diversity of its citizens. In most democratic countries, the Judicial Branch is not autonomous from the other branches. Of all three branches of government, the people have the most direct and frequent contact with the judicial branch, making diversity an absolute necessity under the First, Fifth, Sixth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
During my 50 years as a lawyer and judge, and as a citizen, I have witnessed first-hand the awful costs of racial and gender bias. As a graduate of CU Law School in 1970, Mike McKevitt hired me as a deputy District Attorney in Denver. Like, Judge Flanigan, I was the only black deputy District Attorney in the State of Colorado at that time. I was assigned to be a trial deputy in the Hon. Judge Zita Weinshienk’s courtroom, who was appointed to the bench in 1964, the only female judge in the state.
Being assigned to her court was a stroke of luck. Judge Weinshienk, a graduate of Harvard Law School and member of the Jewish community, possessed a superior intellect and innate wisdom. Her standard of fairness and equal justice for all helped shape my own practice as a lawyer and judge.
When I became a Chief Trial Deputy at age 27, I had the honor of serving in the District Courtrooms of Judge Flanigan and Judge Donald Pacheco, the first Hispanic-American District Court Judge, while Judge Weinshienk continued her ascendency through the court system by becoming the first female state District Court judge, and thereafter, the first female United States District Court Judge in Colorado.
The Hon. Wiley Daniel recognized the immense responsibility bestowed upon him by President Clinton as the first black United States District Court Judge. Wiley was a dear friend who never stopped reminding me that it is our diversity that makes America great. His work was not in vain, as evidenced by the recent appointment by Governor Polis of Nikea T. Bland to the District Court.
As the first recipient of the Judge Wiley Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award, I call on all of us work together to assure that our judicial system reflects the diversity of our communities and that this branch of government draws upon the wealth of all of our collective experiences and wisdom.