Judge Wiley Daniel: Perspectives From the Bench

Late judge’s character as a jurist reflected his core personality

A man in a judges robe speaking with passion behind a podium
Daniel speaks at the Colorado bar swearing-in ceremony in October 2017 for new attorneys who passed the bar the previous summer. / LAW WEEK FILE

Editor’s Note: Law Week included another article with memories of Judge Wiley Daniel in the May 20 issue. 

Judge Wiley Daniel made a name for himself as much for his countless “extracurricular” involvements in the community as he did as a judge. From the accounts of some people who knew him on the bench, Daniel’s character as a jurist reflect those of him in his everyday life: Thoughtful. Ethical. Even-keeled. 

“He left a legacy of dignity and commitment to fairness and accomplishment on the bench, and I’ll miss him,” said David Savitz, a defense attorney who had a number of cases in front of Daniel over the years. He described those qualities as ones Daniel valued in the court as an institution.

Senior U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger, who took over as the Colorado district’s chief judge after Daniel stepped down in 2013 and served in the role until earlier this year, said she didn’t see Daniel’s views of the court as an institution vary from his attitude toward the legal profession in general. 

“He really believed that the profession needed to be diverse and it needed to pull the best of all people into it,” she said. “In other words: that every single person needed to operate at their highest level and be appreciated for what they brought to the process.” She added he appreciated opportunities to mentor people and saw his judgeship as a platform to improve the quality of the legal profession.

Krieger said Daniel began his time as a judge as a product of a mid-20th century court system rooted in a top-down hierarchical structure. Seniority and status tended to govern, and judges at different tiers didn’t often socialize with one another. Daniel took a different approach during his tenure as chief, though, and sought to broaden the court’s structure and place value on the skills people could bring to the table rather than their seniority. 

“I think that grows directly out of the Civil Rights Movement and his interest in civil rights and his belief that society is enriched when we all participate,” Krieger said.

Daniel implemented a tradition of including people from all levels of the court — not just judges — to serve on the court’s various committees. The structure expanded during Krieger’s stint as chief judge to include members of the legal community outside the court, such as attorneys. She said near the end of Daniel’s tenure as chief judge, he invited everyone in the court — clerks, court reporters, IT workers — to participate in long-term planning for after he stepped down as chief. 

An ‘Eager Study’ in Criminal Law

Daniel practiced in civil litigation before he became a judge, so he learned criminal law while on the bench. Savitz’s practice includes both civil litigation and criminal defense, and he estimated Daniel presided over about six or eight of his criminal cases over the years. He described Daniel as organized, fair and interested in understanding complex legal issues in his approach to criminal cases. 

Savitz’s criminal cases that Daniel presided over ranged from white-collar charges to drug and robbery cases. He remembered one of Daniel’s early criminal cases involved fraud charges and accusations that Savitz’s client had embezzled money from Coors.

“He exuded a sense of confidence the longer he served on the bench and the more familiar he became with criminal law. Especially some of the very complex issues involved in criminal law such as wire tapping,” Savitz said. “He was an eager study of those intricate issues.”

Savitz said Daniel had an organized approach to understanding complicated criminal cases that involved sometimes dozens of defendants. 

He prioritized addressing potentially dispositive legal issues, and he understood what information defense counsel would need in order to address the issues, Savitz said.

He said Daniel consistently gave both sides time to present their positions, and he remained open-minded. “I never found him to be short or condescending to an attorney or to a litigant,” Savitz said. “He tried to treat everyone with respect. If he disagreed with you, he would say so, but not in a condescending or superior way.” He added if Daniel made an error of law, he was quick to own up to it.

“That was the exception rather than the rule, because usually his rulings were spot-on.” Savitz said he took care to use language in his rulings that both clients and attorneys could understand.

“Which is not always the case with federal judges who believe that they are Webster’s calling.”

As a Senior Judge

A federal judge taking senior status creates an open seat, and they have the option to reduce their docket loads. They can choose not to take whole classes of cases, such as criminal cases, and they can decline particular cases that come along. 

Savitz suspected once Daniel entered senior status, he felt he had earned a break from the time-consuming, complicated criminal cases. One of Daniel’s former clerks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason St. Julien, confirmed he reduced his criminal docket once he took senior status, though he didn’t recall Daniel expressing why he chose to do that. 

Krieger said the reasons a senior judge might decline certain cases varies widely and would be personal for each particular judge. 

“It could be philosophical,” she said. “It could be purely practical — ‘I don’t have enough time to handle patent cases, and I don’t have enough law clerks with sufficient expertise to do so.’” Krieger added a judge might also have a family member or friend who practices in a certain area of law and opts out of those cases to avoid having to constantly recuse himself. She said she wasn’t sure Daniel had any preferences for particular types of cases, but he did take into account his law clerks’ interests and abilities. “I’m not aware that there was a philosophical issue that drove him to choose particular cases to decline. I’d say that where we needed him as a judge to take particular cases, like bit torrent cases — and we had a whole bunch of them — he was willing to do that.”

A Mirror of His Character

Krieger said Daniel always had an open door and called him “everybody’s friend.” Savitz echoed that sentiment, saying when he came across Daniel outside the courtroom, whether on the street or in a restaurant, they would always make a point to greet each other. 

“I had no qualms about walking across the street and greeting him, because I knew he would accept that.” 

Krieger remembered Daniel having a talent for keeping a civil tone in discussions about contentious issues and focused on how people with different views could collaborate. Even the way he worded things seemed informed by his religious background, Krieger said. He would say, “I want to lift something up for discussion.” 

“And we knew that’s because he comes from a very strong religious tradition, and that’s a phrase that’s often used in that tradition,” Krieger said. “But what it means is, ‘I’d like everybody to think about this and offer your views on it.’” 

She said when she was chief judge, she would call on Daniel to chair committees and working groups she knew involved diverse or disparate views. 

“I knew if I had him chair the committee, it would get done,” Krieger said. “I’m not sure I could say that I could emulate it because it was an innate skill that he had, but I sure tried.”

—Julia Cardi

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