DENVER (CBS4) — Compared to the communities they serve, African American judges are underrepresented nationwide. As a member of the judiciary, Denver Court Judge Gary Jackson feels it’s his responsibility to not let this situation go unchallenged.
When Hon. Gary Jackson, and University of Colorado graduate, earned an internship with the Denver District Attorney’s Office in 1969, he and three colleagues were pictured in the Denver Post. At the time, Jackson said he “had an Afro the size of an official NBA basketball.”
He was the only Black man in the photo. Jackson says his Afro was a symbol of heritage and a badge of courage.
The week after the photo was published in the newspaper, Jackson received an anonymous newspaper clipping that read, “this hairdo is a disgrace to you, your school, and certainly the D.A.’s office.”
Since the beginning of Jackson’s career until today, he says nothing has ever shaken his confidence or made him feel he didn’t deserve the jobs he was given.
“Someone else might’ve thought that I was tokenized, but I never had the feeling that I was a token,” said Jackson.
In 1970, Jackson was the only Black deputy District Attorney in Colorado. From 1974 to 1976, Jackson was the only Black assistant U.S. Attorney.
Out of the 29 appellate court judges now, there are zero Black judges on the Colorado Court of Appeals.
In 2018, Colorado became close to having zero Black District Court judges. Jackson says he applauds Gov. Jared Polis for understanding the importance of diversity on the bench.
There are currently four African American District Court judges out of 196, with a fifth awaiting appointment in July.
“Let me give kudos to Governor Polis. He received the message of what the benefit is to the state of having a diverse bench. He’s appointed three African American judges to the District Court bench. He’s appointed one African American to the County Court bench and one African American to the Juvenile Court bench since he’s been governor,” said Jackson, a founder of the Sam Cary Bar Association.
Jackson says judicial diversity doesn’t affect the outcome of trials, but the level of trust in the decisions that are made. He says it’s positive for people of color, people who feel marginalized, to see someone in a position of power who knows understands experiences.
“Most people, when they come into court, they’re looking for their day in court. They’re not looking for any type of favoritism. When they come into my courtroom, they are going to trust the decisions I make because I look like them. If people trust you, they’re going to make a determination in their own mind that you’re going to be fair,” said Jackson.
Diversity – whether it’s gender, sexuality or race – provides a different experience and perspective in the courtroom. Jackson isn’t the only Black man in the courtroom, but he’s still one of few Black men on the bench for miles. He says Colorado courts have miles to go.
Jason St. Julien, a Denver-based attorney, is currently the only Black federal prosecutor in Colorado. Jackson says St. Julien reminds him of himself in 1970s.
“It’s my hope that with a bench that reflects the community, everybody who comes into court will have trust in a system that’s not based on their status in life,” said Jackson. “As long as there are only a few of us, a token few of us, we’re not going to be able to change the system barriers that are.”
Jackson says we can all help work toward judicial diversity that reflects the community we live in. He says people can encourage children to go to law school, apply to be on a nominating commission, and make donations to scholarship funds that support lawyers of color.
Jackson will retire at the end of this year, and he hopes his contribution to a diverse bench doesn’t leave with him.