Judge Wiley Daniel
CBA Honors the Late Legend with its Award of Merit
The current legal landscape of Denver owes a great debt to Judge Wiley Daniel. He began his career as a civil litigation lawyer, first in Detroit and later in Denver, and in 1995 became the first African American judge appointed to the US District Court for the District of Colorado—an accomplishment his daughter Jennifer Daniel Collins says was one of his proudest. When he passed away in May 2019, Daniel left behind an exceptional legal career, filled with trailblazing firsts (including his term as the first and only Black CBA president) and numerous accolades.
But what truly distinguished Judge Daniel, and why his influence will never entirely fade from the Denver community, was his extraordinary commitment to that community and the thousands of lives he touched through his mentorship. “His legacy is significant,” says attorney Meshach Rhoades. “He gave lawyers and students like me the knowledge, skills, and connections we need to be successful in Colorado’s legal community. He has created a community that has already grown exponentially and will continue to do so in his spirit.”
Daniel is honored posthumously with the CBA’s Award of Merit, which he wins jointly with Judge Alfred Harrell. Both judges share a dedication to fostering inclusivity and diversity in the legal field and have devoted an incredible amount of time and energy to mentoring.
Foundation of Community
Daniel was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Collins remembers she and her two sisters, Stephanie and Nicole, spending summers there as children. They would stay with their father’s parents, aunts, and uncles, “and they would tell us stories about him growing up in the segregated South. As an only child of two teachers, he was given lots of love and support not only by his family, but also by his Black teachers. During segregation, his Black Louisville community was very strong and African Americans looked out for other people’s kids.”
That strong sense of community and looking out for those around you were things that Daniel embodied in his life—things that Collins emulates in her own life and work. “As a kid, I had other interests and did not pay much attention to my dad’s work. I never considered being a lawyer until I was in my twenties and my dad told me I would make a great lawyer and encouraged me to apply to law school. As a lawyer, I have always tried to follow my dad’s example of being humble, fair, hardworking, diligent, and reasonable. His positive attitude, integrity, selflessness, grace, and passion for community service and mentorship are values that my sisters and I strive to uphold every day.”
Opening Doors for Others
“Judge Daniel was a true hero for so many in our legal community, including me,” says Kathleen Nalty, the founder and former executive director of the Center for Legal Inclusiveness (CLI) in Denver. Daniel was a CLI board member and the recipient of that organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. This award was later renamed the Judge Daniel Inclusiveness@Work Lifetime Achievement Award. “He was absolutely relentless in his pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal industry. He was there to start many of the initiatives around these topics, including the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, and then put in the time behind the scenes to drive these efforts forward.”
Lee Reichert, now chief legal and government affairs officer at Molson Coors, says, “I first learned about Judge Daniel when I arrived in Colorado after graduating from law school in 1992 to clerk on the Colorado Supreme Court. Judge Daniel was already a legend in the local bar and was also giving back to the community by serving as the first African American president of the Colorado Bar Association. As a successful 17th Street lawyer, he represented what I and so many other recent graduates aspired to be.”
Reichert had the chance to get to know Daniel later when Reichert became a part of the then-fledgling CLI. “It’s no understatement to say that Judge Daniel made as much of a difference on diversity and inclusiveness as anyone in Denver, not just as a thought leader but as a man of action and inspiration. He unselfishly opened many doors for so many others. Judge Daniel served as a mentor for law students at both the University of Denver and the University of Colorado, as well as high school and college students, law clerks, and scores of lawyers.”
Reichert heard from Daniel not long before he passed. “He was reaching out—as I am sure he did not just with me but many others—on behalf a younger attorney who he really believed in. The person just needed some help in getting the first break into the corporate world. For me, in these cases, it was always easy to assist because you knew there was no better seal of approval than from Judge Daniel.”
A Calm, Collected, and Collegial Leader
Daniel became the chief judge on the US District Court of Colorado in 2008. Current Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer recalls how Daniel “led the court to introduce many reforms. He helped bring greater access to justice to people in the southwestern part of the state, especially to the members of the Ute tribes. He also worked to integrate the magistrate judges more closely into the court’s governance system, a reform which continues to reap benefits today.”
Of Daniel as a person, Brimmer notes that he “brought out the best in people. He was quick with a smile, he got people involved, and he encouraged collegiality. Everything he did or earned in life he worked hard to get. Once he got it, he happily shared it through example, through advice, and through community service.”
Daniel volunteered his time on the boards of community organizations such as Denver Kids Inc., AMIkids Inc., the Denver Children’s Choir, and the Center for African American Health. His commitment was such that he made time, even from the hospital before his passing, to advocate by phone for a potential new board member for Denver Kids. And that was far from the only thing he was working on at the time. “About one week before his untimely and unexpected death, I attended a meeting he led to discuss plans for an upcoming Faculty of Federal Advocates workshop on overcoming barriers to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the legal profession,” says attorney Kathryn Starnella. “In our brainstorming session, he encouraged us to talk openly about the barriers that limit meaningful change in the profession. He also encouraged us to think beyond the legal profession itself and to look at challenges to diversity and equity in the pipelines to law school, starting with elementary school.”
When asked how he had the energy to do all the things he did for all the organizations he was a part of, as well as maintaining genuine contact with all the mentees he had, Collins says, “I would love to know the answer to this question! He had a brilliant mind and was blessed with lots of energy and the ability to compartmentalize his life. So when he was home with family, he was very present with us. Yes, he often worked when he was home at night, but my sisters and I never felt like he wasn’t around; he was always there when we needed him.” It might have something to do with the kind of person he was, “always calm and collected,” she remembers, “but he also could be very fun and had a great sense of humor. He always tried to lighten situations and put people at ease with humor. He constantly made people around him laugh. Family and friends always loved being in his presence because he was so kind, positive, funny, and down to earth. Also, he really loved to dance and wasn’t afraid to bust a move and entertain on the dance floor.”
Despite such a monumental career and his tireless commitment to volunteering, family was what was most important to Daniel. He was a devoted and beloved husband to his wife of 48 years, Ida, and was so excited to have two grandsons, Langston and Quincy, who were very close to their granddad. Said Collins, “They would often shoot hoops in the driveway and play golf. My dad, who was a gifted musician, would regularly help the boys with their piano lessons.”
Growing up, Collins says, she and her sisters didn’t know he was a “monumental” person; “he was just our loving, kind, and attentive dad.” Collins describes her father as “very humble. He was always present when we needed him: to proofread homework assignments, quiz us for tests, attend sports games, choir concerts, and dance recitals. He never bragged about his accomplishments. He was a very kind-hearted man, rarely ever yelled, but definitely wasn’t a pushover and could be strict.”
It took the start of her own legal career for Collins to get the full scope of her father’s impact on the legal profession. “He became a federal judge when I was away at college on the East Coast, so I had limited exposure to what he did during my formative years,” she explains. “I didn’t realize the extent of his accomplishments until I started practicing law in Colorado. Other lawyers would often speak about my father and how much they respected him as a judge. I was so proud of my dad for being such an incredible role model and mentor to so many Colorado lawyers and law students.”
The CBA celebrates Judge Daniel’s commitment to community, mentorship, and equality and is proud to have him among its distinguished Award of Merit recipients. His impact on the Denver legal community will be felt for decades to come.
1. The CBA Award of Merit is awarded annually in recognition of outstanding service or contributions to the association, the legal profession, the administration of justice, or the community. This is the second time in the award’s history when there have been multiple winners, the first being in 1983 with brothers Bernard, Rodger, and S. Robert Houtchens. Judge Harrell will be profiled in a future issue.