Gregory Kellam Scott, Colorado’s First Black Justice Dies

Gregory Scott
According to the Rutgers University Alumni Association, Gregory Scott said America will remain first in a world of equals “only so long as we use all of our most valuable resource, our human capital,” in his 1993 commencement address at Cook College. / DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY
Gregory Scott

As the first and only Black Supreme Court justice for Colorado, Gregory Kellam Scott’s legacy touches many aspects of the legal profession in Colorado. His influence ranged from education to the judiciary, to civic involvement and international politics. Scott died at his home in Anderson, Indiana, on March 31 at age 72.

Scott earned his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University and graduated with honors from the Indiana University Law School. Prior to being appointed to the state Supreme Court, he was an attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He taught law at the University of Denver Law School for more than a decade and notably served as “the head attorney representing the NAACP and the Urban League in Colorado,” according to the Rutgers Alumni Association. Scott went on to establish “a nationwide practice representing minority-owned and other small business firms.”

Scott was appointed to the high court in 1992, and at the time of his appointment, Gov. Roy Romer noted his business experience and long-term commitment to his family and community, as noted in the Supreme Court’s announcement of his retirement in 2000.

As a justice, Scott participated in decisions for more than 1,000 cases and authored numerous opinions, including a concurrence in the landmark Evans v. Romer case, which invalidated Amendment 2, a voter initiative that prevented local governments from enacting ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

He also authored the opinion for Hill v. Thomas, a landmark case that concluded in the early 2000’s in which the Supreme Court upheld legislation that allowed a buffer zone around anyone entering or exiting health care facilities to avoid violence by picketers.

After his time on the bench, he served as vice president and general counsel of Kaiser-Hill L.L.C., the entity overseeing the clean-up of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility. He and his wife Carolyn eventually returned to Indiana following their time in Colorado, and Scott was appointed executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission in 2005.

Scott is remembered as a trailblazer in the legal profession as well as a role model and champion for diversity. He was inducted into the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame and the Rutgers University Hall of Distinguished Alumni. He was also awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Denver.

Retired Denver County Court Judge Gary Jackson, a longtime friend, said Scott gave his energy to organizations including the NAACP, Urban League and Sam Cary Bar Association to improve diversity and inclusion throughout society.

“At DU, he became a role model for hundreds of diverse law students and especially opening up the door and urging and suggesting that these law students become involved in legal work in corporations, businesses, in securities law,” Jackson said. “It’s a major loss for us here in Colorado.”

Scott’s influence as a DU professor helped to shape the entire career of Annita Menogan, former general counsel for Red Robin and senior legal counsel at Molson-Coors Beverage Company. In his class on corporations, something stuck for her. The two became friends, and because of his leadership she said that is his mentorship led to her career. She said he had a calm demeanor, always looked a person straight in the eye, and he always smiled when he saw someone coming. “It was such a warm smile,” she said, adding that he always seemed to expect a person to do their best, “and you didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“He was so personable in addition to being so brilliant,” said Patty Powell, adjunct faculty at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, who took corporate law and securities classes from Scott when he was a professor before his appointment to the court. “He was really well loved among students of all colors; he clearly cared a lot about all of us and invested a lot of time and energy in our success.”

At the Sam Cary Bar Association’s 50th anniversary celebration last week, several members of the bar association spoke of Scott and his impact on their careers, development as lawyers, and his impeccable dress.

“Even though Justice Scott was a formidable business lawyer, professor and jurist, members of the Sam Cary Bar Association will always remember with great fondness his sharp wit, infinite wisdom, love of family, infectious laugh and signature bow ties,” a press release from the bar association states.

“Being the first and only Black Supreme Court Justice for the State of Colorado, he has a special significance to the Sam Cary Bar Association. With the current push for diversity and inclusion, Justice Scott is a pioneer — with the anticipation there’ll be more to come,” SCBA President April Jones said. “People really are impacted by his influence in their career,” she said. Linda Hurd, a former bar association president , said she used to tease him about the bow ties he would wear, but he told her that he wouldn’t dress any less for SCBA.

The Supreme Court noted Scott’s devotion to encouraging and helping people of color succeed both inside and outside the legal profession.

“He felt, I think, an obligation to make sure that the experiences that he had had in life were voiced in the conversations where they would enrich the thought process,” former Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis said in a press release from the Supreme Court. She sat on the court with him during the 1990s. “I think the court and the law in Colorado, as well as the appearance of a representative judiciary, was much better for Greg’s contributions and his presence.”

Former Justice Gregory Hobbs said he fondly remembered Scott as a great colleague, humanitarian, professor and corporate attorney.

Former Supreme Court Justice and retired judge Alex Martinez noted Scott’s significance for his work on the bench as well as in the profession once he returned to private practice. He worked tirelessly for interests of unrepresented people having more of a seat at the table, even though his passion and specialty was really in the area of business. I think he felt there was a way to merge those interests in a very important way in terms of advancing society,” he said.

“I think the greatest benefit is showing lawyers that, although in one sense, the Supreme Court sits at the top of some sort of pyramid, when someone like Greg leaves that and finds another position in which he’s tremendously interested and passionate about, it demonstrates the importance of all of that work and that notion of pyramid is only true in a very limited way. When you get to know someone who has occupied that sort of position and stand shoulder to shoulder with them, it raises your sense of aspiration, your understanding of where you stand with the rest of the world and what your potential is. I think he inspired a tremendous number of people.”

His passing brought comments and sadness from the highest levels of Colorado leadership.

On Twitter, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet wrote, that Colorado had lost “two powerhouses” this week with Scott’s passing, as well as the passing of Justice Mary Mullarkey, the first woman chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, “and we’re grateful for their legacies.”

“Justice Scott was a trailblazer and a devoted public servant who was committed to helping others succeed in the legal profession and beyond,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement. He too acknowledged the loss of two trailblazing justices. “These two individuals will have a lasting impact on our state. They both contributed a great deal to Colorado’s mission of inclusion and creating a Colorado for all.”

Justice Scott was active in many community and civic organizations. He served as the head attorney for local chapters of the NAACP and Urban League, received several awards for service on behalf of social justice causes and appointed to several American delegations traveling abroad, according to the SCBA release. In 1997, he served as co-chair of the U.S. delegation observing the elections in Gabon, Africa.

Scott was a pillar of the community, Menogan said. She added that often throughout their friendship and her career, Scott was a person she would turn to for advice and help with concepts she might’ve been embarrassed to ask other associates about. That connection with Scott is something she currently pays forward, telling younger attorneys that she’ll be that person for them, a friend and experienced source to turn to.

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