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TCL > May 2004 Issue > Karen Ashby

May 2004       Vol. 33, No. 5       Page  45
Profiles of Success

Karen Ashby
by Doris B. Truhlar

The Colorado Lawyer publishes profiles of practicing lawyers on a quarterly basis. The CBA Profiles Committee selects Colorado Bar Association members who are nominated as outstanding lawyers by their peers. With these profiles, the CBA hopes to: promote the image of lawyers by emphasizing qualities that should be emulated; show the benefits of public service to both the lawyer who serves and the community; emphasize professionalism; provide role models for new lawyers; manifest ways of becoming successful and respected; and reward deserving lawyers for their contributions to the profession. Please send your suggestions, comments, or questions about this ongoing feature to: Arlene Abady, Managing Editor, 1900 Grant St., Suite 900, Denver, CO 80203; (303) 824-5325; fax: (303) 830-3990; e-mail:


Doris B. Truhlar, Littleton, is a partner in the firm of Truhlar and Truhlar and concentrates in the area of domestic relations—(303) 794-2404. She also is President of the Arapahoe County Bar Association.

Judge Karen Ashby and daughter Zoe
at Ashby’s 1998 swearing-in ceremony
as a Denver District Court Judge.
Judge Karen Ashby believes that the work of the Juvenile Court makes a huge impact on society, often improving the lives of young people who find themselves in extremely difficult situations. As Presiding Judge of the Denver Juvenile Court, Judge Ashby has the distinction of being the first African-American woman appointed to the Denver Juvenile Court, a court that is on the same jurisdictional level as the Denver District Court. (Ashby remains the only African-American woman appointed to a position within the State Judicial Branch.

Karen Ashby loves her work. She recalls that, when she was applying for her job, some attorneys discouraged her. They told her that she should wait for an opening on the district court because that would be a more important job. She disagreed.

The Early Years

Judge Ashby grew up in a military family. Her father was born in Yemesee, South Carolina, and her mother, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her parents met in Dayton, Ohio, where her mother was working in a record store, and her father was stationed with the Air Force. Her father was a Tuskegee Air Force pilot who served in World War II and Korea.

Born in England, Judge Ashby lived there until she was three years old, when her family moved to Rye Beach, New Hampshire. Her father was stationed at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At the age of 38, her father was hired by United Airlines as a flight instructor, and the family relocated to Denver, where Karen Ashby has lived ever since. Her father and stepmother live in Sun City West, Arizona, and her mother lives here in Denver. Her parents are still very active, and Judge Ashby is close to both of them.

Judge Ashby grew up with two older brothers. Her brother, Rod Ashby, owns a barbecue restaurant near Bailey called Hog Heaven. Judge Ashby notes, "I don’t know where he learned to cook. He didn’t cook for us growing up. His barbecue is absolutely the best in the world." Her other brother, Mike Ashby, is a carpenter and lives in Hartsel, which is close to Fairplay. Growing up as the youngest child and the only girl, her brothers thought she was spoiled. "I probably was," Judge Ashby admits.

A Family of Activists

Karen Ashby’s parents were active in their community and in the civil rights movement. They were in the forefront of the movement to integrate society. Judge Ashby remembers when she was a child that hers was the first African-American family to integrate a neighborhood in New Hampshire. "My parents were very strong people, very politically active." Her family participated in school sit-ins and other important causes. Prior to court-ordered busing, Judge Ashby personally joined the civil rights movement when her parents enrolled her in Carson Elementary School, which was part of the attempts made in Denver to voluntarily integrate the schools.


Becoming a Lawyer and
Starting a Family

After attending Denver Public Schools, Judge Ashby went through her middle and high school years primarily at Kent Denver Country Day School, graduating in 1975. She then attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she majored in Spanish Literature. She remembers the years spent in Williamstown with great fondness, because she grew to love the small rural area in the Berkshire Mountains. She graduated from Williams College in 1979.

After college, Judge Ashby lived in England for a year and then returned to Denver, where she attended the University of Denver College of Law. She generally liked law school, and especially enjoyed her last two years, when she attended school at night and worked for Judge Leonard Plank during the day. At the time, Judge Plank was on the Denver District Court bench. He has been her mentor throughout her career. Judge Plank, who later served on the Colorado Court of Appeals, swore her in when she became a judge in the Juvenile Court in 1998. Judge Ashby credits Judge Plank with being "really helpful" in guiding and teaching her when she clerked for him. She also recalls with fondness Professors Christopher Munch and Professor Lucy Yee (now Lucy Marsh).2

On graduating from law school in 1983, Karen Ashby joined the Public Defender’s Office in Denver, staying there until 1988. While working at the Public Defender’s Office, she met her husband, Mitch Baker, at a party given by friends. She fell in love and married, converting to her husband’s religion, Judaism. She and her husband belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue, which theologically is between the Conservative and Reformed traditions. She and her husband have two children: Zoe was born in 1990, and David was born in 1992. Zoe was recently bat mitzvahed.

Judge Ashby and her husband are world-class travelers. They took approximately one year off from traveling when each of their children was born. Except for those times, they have traveled the globe with their children. "Initially, we just dragged them along," Judge Ashby recalls, "but they now really love traveling and are able to adapt to anything. They have experienced more at their age than many people do in a lifetime," adding that travel is a wonderful opportunity for a family to relate to each other. The family has traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica, Ghana, Columbia, Panama, Ecuador, Indonesia, Sumatra, Java and Bali, India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Italy, Britain, Greece, and France.

Her Judgeship

Prior to serving on the Denver Juvenile Court, Judge Ashby had her own law practice. She also was a half-time judge on the Aurora Municipal Court for three and one-half years. Her interest in serving on the Juvenile Court was fueled in part by her last year on the bench in Aurora, where she presided in the juvenile division. In her private practice, Judge Ashby worked in the areas of criminal defense, family law, and juvenile law. She served as a guardian ad litem and represented parents in dependency and neglect cases. Additionally, she was a supervising attorney for a firm that had a contract to provide indigent defense in the Denver County Court. She also was a hearing officer for the Aurora Public Schools.

Judge Ashby notes that it has been difficult at times serving as a judge when resources have been so limited. At the same time, she feels that it is important for judges to change with the times and to make accommodations to adapt to the cutbacks in services. Some days, Judge Ashby can be found in the Clerk’s Office of the Denver Juvenile Court, copying documents herself. She notes that the funds for support staff just are not what they used to be—but, she quickly adds, "My job is still wonderful."

Recognitions and Service
To the Community

Judge Ashby has received numerous awards and served on many committees. She was a member of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Commission on Families in the Courts. She has been a member since 1999 of the Court Improvement Committee, and currently is the co-chair of that group. In 1999, she received the American Association of University Women’s Trailblazer Award. The Sam Cary Bar Association honored her with its Distinguished Jurist Award on October 30, 2003. She has also been involved in training other judicial officers in the area of juvenile law.

Her service includes membership in a number of bar associations, including the Sam Cary Bar Association. She has served on the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee and the Minorities in the Profession Committee. She has been active in the Rhone-Brackett American Inn of the Court, and served as president of that Inn from 1998 to 1999. She also is a member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Advice to Fellow Lawyers

Judge Ashby has two important bits of advice for attorneys. The first is, "Be willing to seek help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Many lawyers are afraid that, if they ask for help, other people will think they don’t know what they’re doing." She believes that the good attorneys are those who know when to ask for help.

The second piece of advice is that she believes attorneys need to exercise more civility with each other. Effective advocacy does not mean being "arrogant, obnoxious, or deceitful." Although she believes that some progress has been made on this score during the past few years, there is still a long way to go. She often sees an attorney being nasty to other counsel. "It’s a poor way to advocate," she says. "You can be an effective attorney and be civil. Being civil does not mean backing down." Additionally, she thinks it is very important for attorneys to "be willing to tell clients when they are out of line." Her hope for the new attorneys being admitted is that they will not adopt the belief that effective advocacy and civility are mutually exclusive.


Judge Ashby could best be summed up as a person who is highly dedicated and satisfied with her work and her life. She loves her children, her husband, and her extended family. She finds her job very rewarding: "The decisions we make in Juvenile Court are the most important decisions that judges can make, because they shape the lives of young people. This is the most awesome job you could ever have."


1. Denver County Court Judge Claudia Jordan was not appointed by the State Judicial Branch, but by the Mayor of the City and County of Denver.

2. See Truhlar, "Profiles of Success: Lucy A. Marsh," 30 The Colorado Lawyer 17 (Nov. 2001).


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