The long, long journey to an all-inclusive Justice Center

an image of philip van cise.jpg
Philip Van Cise.

They're going to need some pretty big signs to hold all the names of the august Denverites honored at the city's new justice complex.

After a contentious, sometimes bitter and racially charged process that stretched over several months, the Denver City Council finally agreed Monday night, with one notable abstention, to name various buildings and components of the new complex after six influential figures in the evolution of the city's justice system.

"We've received a tremendous history lesson about the great people of Denver," declared councilman Michael Hancock, shortly before casting his vote.

A task force had initially recommended naming the courthouse after two judges: Ben Lindsey, who created the first juvenile court in the nation, and James Flanigan, the city's first African-American district judge. The group also suggested naming the jail after former manager of safety John Simonet and the plaza connecting the two facilities after 1970s district attorney Dale Tooley.

That list omitted 1920s gangbusting attorney and KKK foe Philip Van Cise, whose name had been advanced by descendants and other supporters in a year-long campaign, for reasons spelled out in my 2008 feature "Scourge of the Underworld." The mayor's office put Van Cise back in contention, though, advancing the idea that he and Simonet would share the marquis for the detention center.

But the process almost foundered, as the absence of any Hispanic leader among the luminaries brought objections from councilwoman Rita Montero and others. That prompted the idea of naming the jury assembly room in the new courthouse after retired judge and longtime community activist Roger Cisneros, a founding member of La Raza in the 1960s. (Both Simonet and Cisneros remain among the living, but naming edifices after the still-warm has never bothered politicians in a town whose last four mayors have had a convention hall, a sports arena, a boulevard and an office building christened in their honor.)

Monday night, a series of speakers praised Flanigan and Cisnero as role models and pioneers. Historian Tom Noel celebrated Lindsey, and Cindy Van Cise thanked the council for remembering her grandfather. Keith Tooley recalled how his father taught him that "the most important thing about people are their differences."

But councilwoman Jeanne Faatz remained nettled by the fact that Judge Lindsey had gotten into trouble over money he'd received for giving legal advice to a friend while sitting on the bench; as pointed out in my previous blog "No Justice For Van Cise," Van Cise, who allied with Lindsey against the Klan but frequently butted head with him, filed the original complaint against him. Lindsey's political enemies on the Supreme Court used the incident to disbar him. (He was reinstated in 1935, after he'd left the state for good.)

"We really do need to understand all the history," Faatz said. "The person who raised the disbarment issue is being honored in the building across the way. They're going to be facing off from each other, just as they did in life. I'm simply troubled by this."

In the end, though, Faatz's abstention was the last hurdle in a protracted process of compromise and celebration. All of the trailblazers who now will share the billing at the new center had a common goal, believe it or not -- they prized justice and fairness above all. Flanigan and Cisneros each opened doors and provided access to the courts for communities that had been largely left out. Tooley increased minority representation in the DA's office from two percent to fifty percent in a single decade. Van Cise battled massive corruption and restored integrity to his office; Lindsey created a national model for child protection laws and services. And Simonet, over a long tenure, made Denver's corrections system more human and efficient. Flawed as they might have been as individuals, they each made a hell of a difference in the notion of what passes for justice in this town.

And, for a brief time in the city council chambers, after all the squabbling over competing agendas behind the naming process, the group managed to put aside its own differences long enough to offer a collective, long-overdue thank you.

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