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TCL > March 2003 Issue > Modern-Day Minutemen: The Colorado Bar and Legal Reform in Cold War Colorado

March 2003       Vol. 32, No. 3       Page  49
Historical Perspectives

Modern-Day Minutemen: The Colorado Bar and Legal Reform in Cold War Colorado
by Tom I. Romero, II

This historical perspective was written by Tom I. Romero II, Western Legal Studies Fellow, University of Colorado-Boulder:

The year 1958 was noteworthy for all of Colorado. Exactly 100 years since American prospectors discovered gold on the banks of the Platte River, the centennial celebration of the "Rush to the Rockies" served to show how modern and progressive the state had become. Most important, the state emerged as an essential player in the worldwide struggle against communism. In 1949, the federal government designated Denver as the alternative capital to Washington, D.C. in the event of a nuclear war. By the 1950s, the state soon housed a high-level nuclear weapons facility, the North American Aerospace Defense Command ("NORAD"), the Air Force Academy, and a plethora of defense-related industries spanning the I-25 corridor. Consequently, Coloradans boasted with pride their position as a symbol of all that was right and good with American-style growth and democracy.

Beneath such Cold War rhetoric, however, social and institutional fissures threatened to undermine the state’s ability to live up to its democratic promise. As early as 1946, a committee of the Colorado Bar Association ("CBA") studied the Colorado court system. In the committee report, the CBA noted shortcomings in every level of the state’s judicial administration. The report detailed one comic instance where the committee discovered "one senile District Judge, in an automobile personal injury case where the injured plaintiff was alive and in court, gave first degree murder instructions to the jury" [See Van Cise, "The Colorado Judicial System—Can It and Should It Be Improved?" 22 Rocky Mountain L.Rev. 142, 145 (Feb 1950)]. In subsequent reports, the CBA gave vivid accounts about significant weaknesses in Colorado’s legal regime, including the overwhelming case dockets of many judges, poorly represented defendants, and unequal administration of state and municipal laws. Such judicial problems documented by the Colorado Bar in the 1940s and 1950s exposed widespread threats to the sanctity of due process, equality, and fairness in judicial proceedings in the state. Without reform, the CBA reports suggested that the judicial system would be incapable of safeguarding the liberties of the state’s rapidly growing and increasingly urban citizenry.

Despite these findings, Colorado’s legal system remained fundamentally unchanged throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. As Colorado Supreme Court Justice and later U.S. District Judge William Doyle declared, it was a "frontier" system ill-suited to the demands of modern society [see Doyle, "Colorado’s Program to Improve Court Administration," 38 Dicta 1, 9 (Jan.–Feb. 1961)]. Not surprisingly, members of the Colorado Bar increasingly made public their grievances with the state’s legal system. In an unsigned editorial in the official publication of the Denver Bar, one lawyer made the following challenge:

Paul Revere—yes, many Paul Reveres—are riding today, warning the countryside that the enemies who seek to destroy the supremacy of law and the rule of the people—have landed. . . . The minute men who should be hearing Paul and putting on the battle dress are the members of the bar—in whose hands . . . have been the task of writing and interpreting laws, of forming government, and of protecting the sacred rights of the people. Are our lawyer minute men of this day hearing the call to arms, putting on their battle garbs and rushing to the defense of democracy, or are they sitting in their law offices collecting five dollar fees while Paul Revere rides by unheeded?

["Paul Revere Rides Again—Who Hears Him This Time?" 24 Dicta (Aug. 1947), at 165].

It would take more than a decade since this was written to overcome the inertia and antipathy that existed among Colorado lawyers and jurists for legal reform. By the middle of the 1960s, however, constitutional and institutional changes were made with the encouragement of the Colorado Bar. These included the passage of Amendment 1 in 1962 and Amendment 3 in 1966 that repealed Articles VI and XIV, § 11, of the Colorado Constitution and was replaced by a completely re-worked Article VI to the state constitution. In addition to eliminating the Justice of the Peace system, the amendments restructured the jurisdictional boundaries of Colorado’s courts, provided more qualified judges, and implemented a system of merit selection for judges in the state. These changes compelled the American Judicature Society to praise Colorado for leading the nation in progressive and meaningful judicial reform. Although a long and protracted struggle, Colorado’s judicial "minutemen" fortified institutional weaknesses that threatened democracy, liberty, and due process in the state’s legal regime.

The many challenges and problems existing in Colorado’s Cold War legal regime are heavily documented in post-World War II issues of Dicta and the Rocky Mountain Law Review. Noteworthy is Albert C. Jacobs, "The Function of Courts in Maintaining Constitutional Government and Individual Freedom 29 Dicta 341 (Sept. 1952). In addition, many of the problems threatening judicial administration in the state are assessed in transcripts of the proceedings of "Judicial Organization for Colorado" (Colorado Bar Association, Dec. 16–17, 1960) located at the University of Colorado Law Library. Finally, the papers of Judge William Doyle, housed in the archives at the Auraria Campus Library, provide compelling evidence of the deep divisions slowing legal reform in the state.

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