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TCL > July 2012 Issue > Leonard von Bibra Sutton (1914–2002)

July 2012       Vol. 41, No. 7       Page  61
Six of the Greatest

Leonard von Bibra Sutton (1914–2002)
by John A. (Jack) Kintzele

About the Author

Jack Kintzele has been practicing law for fifty-one years. He is a member of the American, Colorado, Denver, and Arapahoe County Bar Associations, and is a Colorado Bar Foundation Fellow. He is an author and lecturer, and served as Denver Election Commissioner for several years during the 1970s and 1980s.


Leonard von Bibra Sutton was a man for all seasons. As a youngster, he was industrious, shining shoes to earn money, even though he did not grow up in a household where it was necessary that he work. As an adult, he was seen as erudite, articulate, and mannerly.1

In 1956, at the age of 42, Leonard became a Colorado Supreme Court justice. However, his achievements were not limited to deciding court cases. He spoke three languages equally well and was a trailblazer in international affairs. He was on a first-name basis with opera star Lauritz Melchior and President Lyndon B. Johnson, who appointed him to a national government position. During the years we were in practice together, he welcomed many visitors to our offices—mostly related to international law matters.

He loved his wife, he loved learning, and he was devoted to achieving world peace. Leonard was loyal to his friends and to his clients, and made every person—janitor or high public official—feel special. He stopped working and learning only when he was physically unable to continue.

Early Years

Leonard von Bibra Sutton was born in Colorado Springs on December 21, 1914. His father was B.E. Sutton, and his mother was Anna Marie von Bibra. His father was an old-fashioned banker and a strict disciplinarian. His mother was a German baroness who was a professor at Colorado College. Legend has it that Leonard was a direct descendant of Johannes Gutenberg.2 It is a fact that the Bibra family had a Coat of Arms in 1681. According to information in a 2002 Rocky Mountain News obituary notice, Leonard could trace his ancestry 1,500 years. The same obituary reported that, notwithstanding his heritage and certainly not because the family lacked financial wherewithal, as a boy, he shined shoes for fourteen hours a day, Monday through Saturday (and five hours on Sunday), for a wage of $1 a day.3

Leonard attended high school in Colorado Springs, where he graduated in 1933. He participated in track, the combined chorus, and the drama club. He was editor-in-chief of the school publication, The Lever. He was inducted into the National Honor Society in 1933 and was awarded other scholastic honors.

Leonard von Bibra Sutton—a leader-to-be.

Later that year, Leonard attended Colorado College, where he studied geology and political science. In 1936, while he was still in college, he helped found the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society, which is believed to be still in existence. He graduated from Colorado College in 1937 and enrolled at the University of Denver (DU) College of Law.

On March 4, 1938, Leonard and Janette E. Gabor were married. The Suttons lived primarily in Denver, and were married for almost sixty years. They had no children.

In 1941, Leonard received his LLB from DU and was admitted to the Colorado bar. Except for a four-year stint in the military during World War II, where Leonard served as an Army Infantry Officer, he had an active law practice in Colorado Springs until 1956, when he was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court. As a lawyer, he did trial work and some administrative law.

An Idealist in Life and Law

Leonard was the quintessence of an idealist. "World Peace Through Law" was his mantra.4 He lived it and quietly worked as hard as he could for world peace during all the different phases in his life. He supported causes advocating peaceful solutions to tensions among nations. He had a facility for languages and was fluent in Spanish and German. His international law work in Central and South America was made much easier because of his fluency in Spanish.

In legal disputes, Leonard Sutton usually took the side of "David" over "Goliath," if David’s cause was reasonably worthy. Also he was loyal to his friends and clients. If someone with whom Leonard had worked or if a client’s case had merit, he would always help that person to the extent he reasonably could.

Going to Court With Leonard v.B. Sutton

Before Leonard left the Supreme Court, I introduced myself to him. After he left Washington, DC, I was happy to have Leonard share office space with me and another lawyer whom he also knew. Leonard was in his late 60s and early 70s during this time.

On two occasions, Leonard offered to participate in my law practice. In retrospect, and considering the outcome of each case, I—and my clients—would have done well to have him participate in more of my cases!

In a domestic case, Leonard volunteered to testify on behalf of my client, the husband. I asked a co-counsel to do Leonard’s examination. In a quiet, non-spectacular way, Leonard was able to make the husband’s position make sense. As a 73-year-old witness, Leonard withstood a long (but wholly ineffective) cross-examination.

The second case was a probate case. My client wanted to have United Bank of Denver removed as a conservator. Leonard came to court with me as a self-designated "second chair." When we were returning to the office from court, Leonard reviewed each of the twenty-four points for removal that I had made in court, which the trial judge took under advisement. Hearing his analysis of twenty-four sections was like descending into the depths of Dante’s Inferno. By the time we had traveled back from Littleton to our office on Delaware Street, my brain was about to explode because of the thoroughness of Leonard’s analysis. Relief came once I heard Leonard’s accurate conclusion: "I think your client will get the bank removed."

Fairness From the Bench

By the time Leonard ran for re-election to the Colorado Supreme Court on November 3, 1964,5 his public re-election résumé was significant. Colorado Governor Ed C. Johnson had appointed him to the bench in 1956, and he was elected to an eight-year term that year. He was re-elected in 1964. He served as Chief Justice in 1966. In 1968, Chief Justice Sutton resigned from the Colorado Supreme Court to consider a Washington, DC appointment involving international law.

A statewide candidate for the Supreme Court.   Leonard v.B. Sutton, in his office in Washington, DC (1968), Chairman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Focusing on International Affairs

Shortly after Chief Justice Sutton left the bench, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him Chair of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. Leonard’s professional move to Washington was honored by a Joint Resolution of the Colorado Legislature.

His work on international human rights issues continued throughout his life. It included involvement in the Inter-American Bar Association and the founding of the international legal studies program at DU College of Law. Justice Sutton established the "Chief Justice Leonard v.B. Sutton International Law Award," an annual endowment that allows a DU law student to spend a summer at the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. He also had a hand in establishing DU’s annual Leonard v.B. Sutton Colloquium in International Law Award.6 In 1987, he was awarded the Grand Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany.

Justice Sutton’s international law-related activities were extensive. His interest in global affairs began in 1935, when he received a scholarship to study in Germany. It continued during the early 1970s, when he served as president of the Washington Foreign Law Society and wrote articles on law, judicial administration, and international relations. It was during the 1970s to 1990s that he traveled extensively throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America as a speaker and U.S. diplomat. Because he spoke Spanish fluently, he was in high demand as an international law speaker. A list delineating some of his international activities appears in the accompanying sidebar.

A Man of the World

Leonard Sutton’s interest in international affairs was piqued at an early age. Listed below are examples of his extensive international law-related activities.

  • 1935, scholarship to study in Germany 1935
  • 1937–38, Fellow and graduate, National Institute Public Affairs
  • 1942, Infantry Officers School, Fort Benning, Georgia
  • 1968–69, Chair, U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission
  • Member, World Peace Through Law Commission
  • Chair, Colorado World Peace Through Law Commission
  • Member, World Habeas Corpus Commission
  • 1976, honorary member, New York World Trade Commission
  • Member and former trustee, Institute of International Education, New York City
  • 1987, recipient, Grand Order of Merit, Federal Republic of Germany
  • Member, International American Council
  • Chair, Committee on International Courts; member, International Law Section Council
  • Member, Mexican Academy International Law
  • U.S. member, Buenos Aires Bar Association
  • Member, American Arbitration Association, Canada Arbitration, and Conciliation and Amicable Composition Central, Inc. (international association)
  • 1970–71, President, Washington Foreign Law Society
  • Member, Royal Danish Guards Association, California
  • Honorary member, Consular Law Society New York
  • Author, Constitution of Mexico (1973)
  • Guest lecturer and teacher at numerous institutions of higher learning, and contributor of numerous articles on law, judicial administration, and international relations

Art Collector Extraordinaire

Like many other lawyers of his generation, Leonard collected paintings and other artifacts. Also, when he was in private practice, he often was given artwork by his clients. His collection was so large that he needed two condominiums in which to house it all! Leonard collected a lot and discarded very little.

A Noble Man, a Fair Jurist, a Lifelong Professional

Leonard participated in many legal, political, and civic organizations. In 1952, he was a delegate from Colorado to the Democratic National Convention from Colorado. During his professional life, he was a member of the American Bar Association, American Judicature Society, American Legion, Freemasons, Shriners, and Rotary.

World Peace Ambassador.   Leonard v.B. Sutton—later years, holding a photo of his wife Janette, to whom he was married for almost sixty years.

Leonard Sutton died on December 16, 2002. He was preceded in death by his wife, Janette. Without children, his later years after Janette died were especially challenging for him.

Former Colorado Chief Justice Sutton and I were associated in the practice of law, politics, and life for more than a decade. It was a gift to be able to share time and work with him.


1. Leonard von Bibra Sutton easily could have decided to be just a part of the elite aristocracy, but his choice was to be a man of the people, as evidenced by the fairness of his judicial decisions and where and how he practiced law, particularly in his productive later years.

2. This ancestry is believed to be true but has not been verified. Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was a German to whom invention of the printing press is attributed. See Bellis, "Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press," available at

3. Rocky Mountain News obituary, (Dec. 20, 2002.)

4. After retiring from the Supreme Court, Leonard turned his attention to international affairs and international law.

5. This was before judges were appointed by the Governor on a nonpartisan basis. Former Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter was Judge Sutton’s law clerk into late 1964. Hunter fondly remembers that during an extremely large labor union pre-election meeting, Justice Sutton made it very clear that he was his own man, and that he never was predisposed to favor any group in his judicial decision making.

6. Information about the Leonard v.B. Sutton Colloquium in International Law is available at

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