A Lifetime Commitment to Diversity

Judge Wiley Daniel broke new ground in positions he held and made a priority of paying it forward

Denver County Court Judge Alfred Harrell, U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel, attorneys Leslie Fields and Daniel Muse, and Denver County Court Judge Gary Jackson pose together. All five have received the Sam Cary Bar Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. / COURTESY OF JUDGE GARY JACKSON

Wiley Daniel rose to a high public profile as Colorado’s first black federal district court judge. But those who knew him closely don’t describe him in terms of his career. They talk about his commitments to increasing diversity in the legal profession. And they describe him as a person: Humble. Respectful. Big-hearted. Supportive. Someone to continually seek out for mentorship. 

Daniel died May 10 at age 72 after more than 20 years on the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. He spent more than four decades of his career in Colorado, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a corner of the legal profession he didn’t touch, both through his community involvement and because he seemingly left an impression on everyone who got to know him.  

“He was my champion,” said Jason St. Julien, who clerked for Daniel from 2012 to 2014. St. Julien had first met Daniel right after law school when he found himself in a bind after a planned clerkship in Louisiana fell through. The two ended up connecting through a few of St. Julien’s contacts, and Daniel was readily willing to meet St. Julien, who felt an instant bond with Daniel. “It doesn’t mean there was never constructive criticism, but there was no doubt, I knew he had my back and he was in my corner. And it was unconditional.”

When President Bill Clinton nominated Daniel to the U.S. District Court in 1995, Daniel became the first black federal district court judge in Colorado. He also served as the first and only black president of the Colorado Bar Association from 1992 to 1993. Several years after moving to Denver, he became managing partner of now-defunct Popham Haik Schnobrich & Kaufman’s local office. 

Daniel made a point of hiring and mentoring legal professionals of color, and his work toward increasing diversity in Colorado’s law community has earned him lifetime achievement awards from organizations such as the Center for Legal Inclusiveness and the Sam Cary Bar Association, Colorado’s association for black attorneys. 

He hired Leslie Fields at now-dissolved Gorsuch Kirgis Campbell Walker & Grover when she graduated in 1981 from law school at the University of Denver. Fields sees that early support from Daniel as pivotal in starting her career, because she understood as a black attorney, high-profile BigLaw opportunities could be difficult to get, even with sterling qualifications. 

“We talked for almost an hour. I remember that meeting so well. Not just about law school, but about family, my values [and] general background,” Fields said. “I remember at the end of that meeting, he turned to me and … he said, ‘I’m going to do everything I can, Leslie, to get you over here.’”

Several black judges and attorneys who knew Daniel talked about his impact in terms of seeing people like themselves represented in high-level law positions. Judge Don Toussaint of the Arapahoe County Court said he met Daniel in the mid-1990s during his undergraduate years, before the possibility of going to law school, let alone being a judge, had crossed Toussaint’s mind. Daniel was the first black judge he ever met. 

“It opened my eyes to the range of possibilities for me to strive to be better,” Toussaint said. He added Daniel wasn’t the only reason he decided to go to law school, but he helped Toussaint realize he could choose a path outside stereotypical roles society tends to put African American people in, such as entertainment or sports. He later interned for Daniel during his third year of law school in 2008. 

But Daniel didn’t have any illusions about the little progress that has been made toward increasing the diversity of Colorado’s legal community in the decades he’s dedicated to the task.

“I think he was disappointed. He was disappointed that we have not come as far as we should be, and that there is backtracking in terms of diversity,” said Denver County Court Judge Gary Jackson. Jackson first met Daniel when Daniel moved to Colorado in 1977 and joined the Sam Cary Bar Association. There remains a dearth of black attorneys in high-level positions in Colorado’s legal community: There’s only one black district judge in the state, one minority managing partner of a major law firm in Denver, and to date the state Supreme Court has had only one black justice.

But Jackson said Daniel taught him about optimism, and he said he believes the two of them are similar in their willingness to stay open in all environments.

“He’s somebody that even at my age, I try to emulate,” Jackson said. “And if you want to use the word carrying on his work, I will carry on his work.” 

Memories and Mentorship

Daniel had a public profile as the first black U.S. District Court judge in Colorado, but most people I spoke to knew him simply as “Wiley.” They said they continually went to him for advice and guidance throughout their time knowing him. Below, those who knew him well share in their own words some of their favorite memories and best advice they got from the late judge.

Judge Don Toussaint, Arapahoe County Court: The biggest one was when we sat in his chambers watching the inauguration [of President Barack Obama in 2008.] Here I am in the courtroom of the first African American judge in federal district court in Colorado, watching the first African American president of the United States. We’re sitting there and we’re talking … just a side conversation he and I had [about] the importance of being a person with honor, integrity, doing the best for your community. 

Everything else, what he did on the bench, was great obviously … but I’m going to remember more watching the inauguration with him. It was history for me. Judge Daniel was the chief judge at the time, so he was the first black chief judge on the federal bench, and watching the first black president, that was something unique.

David Powell, Colorado Office of the Attorney General: Most recently, when I decided to go from the private sector to the public sector, I talked to him about that. He said, “Look, don’t think about the money, because you’ve got to think about the job and what you’re going to be doing in making a difference.” Not to say it wasn’t something that maybe somebody else may have told me, but he certainly was somebody who I think knew what was important in life. 

A lot of our friends are caught up in the money and maybe the prestige of certain things. But that’s the one thing I could say about Wiley and a reflection of his overall life, was that he really knew what was important.

Jason St. Julien, assistant U.S. attorney: Jason St. Julien first met Daniel when he graduated from Louisiana State University and suddenly found himself without a job when the chief judge he was set to clerk for died before St. Julien took the bar exam. He found another clerkship in Louisiana but had been reaching out to his contacts letting them know his situation. His trial advocacy coach, through another judge in Colorado, connected him with Daniel. St. Julien first spoke to Daniel by phone while Daniel was in his chambers during a recess in trial. 

So I had chatted with him once or twice. He came to New Orleans in December of 2011 to speak at some type of conference, and he contacted me and says, let’s have breakfast. He was so at ease with who he was, and immediately it was like I was talking with my uncle. 

He then asked me to show him around the courthouse. I was showing him around, and then I was walking him to the security to leave. I stopped and I said, “Man to man, you don’t know me from Adam. You didn’t have to answer my call and talk to me. You didn’t have to choose to have breakfast with me, and for whatever reason you did. I want you to know, man to man, I will never forget your willingness to meet with me and talk with me, and just be with me.”

I stuck my hand out to shake his hand, and he pushed it away and gave me a hug. And he said, “I’m so proud of you for fighting to get another clerkship, and let’s keep in touch.” And he said again, “I’m just so proud of you.” That moment told me everything I need to know about him as a human being.

Judge Gary Jackson, Denver County Court: Six months ago, Wiley invited me to join a men’s book club. The book club is composed of seven people. We’re all over the age of 70. There are two black judges, including Wiley. There are two doctors. There is a former college professor. There is a retired air traffic controller. 

And it has been a great experience to engage with Wiley in that type of a setting, where we are reading books, we’re discussing books, and we’re discussing it from the vantage point of [over]-70 black senior men.

Leslie Fields, Owners’ Counsel of America: Two weeks ago after months of scheduling and rescheduling, Wiley and I were able to get together for lunch. At the time, it was just a fun catch-up at his favorite Chinese restaurant. But now, of course, it’s taken on special meaning that I was able to have that personal time with him literally within days of his passing. It just seems like such a gift now. 

—Julia Cardi

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