Wiley Daniel, Colorado’s First Black Federal Judge, Dies at 72

Judge Wylie Daniels during the Owl Club debutante ball Saturday, June 4, 2016, in Denver. (Photo Special to The Denver Post, David Zalubowski)

On May 3, a group of “firsts” — barrier-breakers in the Colorado law community — gathered at the Colorado History Museum to honor the appointment of Neeti Pawar, the first Asian-American woman to sit on an appellate court bench in the state’s history.

Among the trailblazers in the room that day was Judge Wiley Y. Daniel, the first African-American judge to be appointed to the federal bench in Colorado, nearly 25 years ago.

The room — a mix of Latino, Asian and African-American judges who reached the pinnacle of their professions — was a testament to the diversity in law that Daniel made his life’s calling.

Daniel, the former chief judge for the U.S. District Court of Colorado and one of the city’s pioneering black judges, died Friday afternoon from a heart attack. He was 72.

“It’s a great loss for Colorado,” said longtime friend Judge Gary M. Jackson.

Jackson said he last spoke to Daniel on Thursday night for a business telephone conference, when Daniel complained of nausea and what felt like food poisoning.

“It’s a shock to everyone,” Jackson said. “Wiley was such a vibrant, energetic, involved type of person.”

Daniel is survived by his wife, Ida, three daughters and several grandchildren.

Jackson first met Daniel in 1977 when the latter moved to Colorado from Detroit. They were both members of the Sam Cary Bar Association, the state’s organization for African-American attorneys.

Jackson and Daniel — two of the group’s 30-odd members at the time — quickly formed a strong professional and personal friendship that lasted over four decades. Their families would get together many Sundays to eat dinner and watch “Eyes on the Prize” — a late 1980s TV series about America’s civil rights movement.

“We had common goals, common designs,” Jackson said about why the two got along so well. “We were trying to make more opportunities for attorneys of color in Colorado.”

With just a few dozen black attorneys in the state at the time, Daniel made it his mission to grow their ranks. At the same time, he continued to break racial barriers himself.

In 1992, he rose to be the first — and only — black president of the Colorado Bar Association. Three years later, President Bill Clinton appointed Daniel to the U.S. District Court for Colorado, becoming the first African-American federal judge in the state.

“It was a tremendous step for Colorado,” Jackson said, “because at that time, there were no Latino or Asian judges, so he opened the door for a judge of color on the U.S. District Court.”

Bill Choslovsky was the first clerk Daniel hired after he was tapped for the federal bench.

“Forget all his accolades,” Choslovsky said. “Forget he was a prominent federal judge. He was simply a kind man, and I have not met anybody who practices balance better than him.”

Balance, Choslovsky said, is something judges often speak about, often aspire to, but few actually practice it the way Daniel did.

“He was principled, but not so principled that he would not be pragmatic as a judge,” Choslovsky said. “He was pragmatic, but not so pragmatic that he would abandon his principles.”

Thirteen years after Daniel took the bench, he become chief judge of the court.

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Source: Denver Post