Magazine Feature / People

City Council recognizes DU alumni with justice center naming honors

Five judicial luminaries from Denver’s municipal history were chosen for public honors on March 16 and two of the notables have professional roots at DU.

James Flanigan (JD ’46), Denver’s first black county court judge and the grandson of a slave, was chosen along with District Judge Benjamin Lindsey for naming honors at the city’s new $265 million courthouse complex.

When construction of the new complex on Colfax Avenue at Fox Street is complete in 2010, the central building will be the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse.

Within the courthouse will be a Jury Assembly Room named for another DU graduate, former Denver District Judge Roger Cisneros (BA ’50). Cisneros, who hailed from a family of New Mexico sheepherders, began his education in a one-room schoolhouse but eventually earned a spot in Westminster Law School, the only night law program west of Kansas City.

While enrolled, Cisneros drove a cab to support his wife and three children. He graduated in 1957, the same year Westminster became part of DU. The merger helped develop the night program at the Sturm College of Law, where the library is today named the Westminster Law Library.

“Judge Cisneros is a hero in our community,” said Patricia Baca, a citizen who attended the council meeting. “He cleared the way [for others.]”

Cisneros attended the Monday evening council meeting, where admirers lined up to offer praise, citing his 12-year service as a state senator, his 11 years on the bench and his long history as a tireless community activist.

“Judge Cisneros has been a role model for years,” former councilwoman Ramona Martinez said.

“You are a giant,” added Councilwoman Judy Montero.

The praise for Judge Flanigan was equally effusive, kicked off by testimony from Gregory Scott, a former justice on the Colorado Supreme Court. Scott was an adjunct professor at DU teaching securities law when in 1993 then-Gov. Roy Romer made him the first African-American named to the state’s high court.

“Judge Flanigan stands with the likes of Thurgood Marshall,” Scott told the council during the six minutes of testimony he was allowed. “He had a love for the rule of law.”

Scott traveled from Indiana to speak at the proceeding and join the chorus of praise for Flanigan, who helped break enough Colorado racial barriers that one admirer called him “the Jackie Robinson of the legal community.”

Flanigan died in 2008.

“I am delighted that the Denver City Council has chosen to honor two of our most distinguished alumni,” Sturm Law School Dean Beto Juárez said Tuesday. “Their role as pioneers in Denver’s legal community exemplify the University of Denver’s longstanding role in educating the leaders of the Denver bar and judiciary.”

Council selects more honorees

Other recipients of Monday’s flurry of naming were Philip Van Cise, a former Denver district attorney credited with “breaking the back of organized crime in the city and the Ku Klux Klan,” and L. Jon Simonet, Denver’s director of corrections for 18 years. Simonet championed “the humane treatment of inmates” and established treatment and education programs aimed at easing prisoners back into the community.

The only uncertainty in the naming night came during consideration of Lindsey. The diminutive, 98-pound judge, called “Bull Mouse” by Teddy Roosevelt, was praised as the founder of Denver’s juvenile court system in 1903. He has also been credited with opposing political corruption and the KKK while advocating child labor laws, “cohabitation before marriage, birth control and no-fault divorce,” according to historian Dr. Tom Noel (BA history ’67, MA library science ’68).

Nevertheless, the historic record is murky. An ethics accusation resulted in Lindsey’s rebuke by the Denver Bar Association and disbarment by the state Supreme Court, which later reinstated him. Noel said the actions were vindictiveness by Lindsey’s political enemies. But these assurances were insufficient for Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz, who abstained on supporting the Lindsey naming ordinances.

Not so in regard to the other nominees, including Cisneros, whom Faatz praised as a worthy honoree.

“He never sought this honor,” Faatz said. “He was asked to accept this honor, and I’m glad he did. [Roger Cisneros] is truly the real deal.”

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