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Raising the bar: Colorado pushes for more diversity on bench

Statewide bench is over 80% white; newly appointed Black women hope to leave legacy
Raising the bar: Colorado pushes for more diversity on bench
Posted at 11:46 PM, Sep 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-19 01:52:08-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — The conversation surrounding women being under-represented in the criminal justice system is nothing new, and there's even less Black or African American women filling those positions. But some recently appointed Colorado judges are hoping to leave a new legacy, and inspire others to pursue their dreams.

District Court Judge Frances Johnson is an African American woman, who began serving as a judge in the 4th Judicial District in January. Frances said she has spent around 23 years working in the criminal justice system, starting as an attorney in 1997. She says becoming a judge is a major responsibility. "Several judges, once they become a trial court judge, you know, they might want to be an appellate judge. This is all I've ever wanted to do, I love being in the courtroom, I love helping people... This, for me, is the pinnacle," said Johnson.

Born in Colorado Springs to an Air Force family, Johnson said her appointment to the bench is more than just a personal journey. It's about serving her community. "It's hard to tell the community that the judiciary is fair and impartial, if when the community comes in front of the bench, they don't see the entire community reflected there. So, it's definitely a great start. There's more that needs to be done," said Johnson.

According to data provided to News5 from the Colorado Judicial Department, over 80% of all judges and justices across the state are white.

The Colorado Judicial Branch is reported to have 339 judges and justices. Of those, men make up around 60% (202), and women account for about 40% (137).

Here is the diversity makeup of those 339 judges and justices:

  • White: 292
  • Hispanic or Latino: 30
  • Black/African American: 8
  • Asian: 7
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 1
  • Two or More Races (not Hispanic or Latino): 1

It's worth noting these figures were compiled at the end of August, and since then, Governor Jared Polis has made four new judicial appointments. Those demographics are not yet available. Also, the numbers do not include the judges of the Denver County Court, which is not part of the state system.

Diversity makeup of Colorado statewide bench
Numbers from the Colorado Judicial Department showing the demographics of judges and justices across the state (excluding judges of the Denver County Court, which is not part of the state system).

Out of the eight Black or African American judges, six are women. El Paso County Court Judge Samorreyan Burney was appointed in June of this year. "Nerve-wracking, waiting for that phone call... There was this disbelief, and excitement," said Burney, about the day she found out she had gotten the job.

Burney served as a criminal prosecutor within the 4th Judicial District for around 16 years prior to moving into her new role as a judge. Before that, she practiced law in California.

She called her new position a dream job. "It's humbling, it carries a lot of responsibility... You have a path that you hope to build a legacy for those who follow. And so, you want to make sure as a driving force, that legacy is one of excellence, that it is one of compassion," said Burney.

Burney said she is not shocked by the statistics regarding the statewide bench. "I think it's a disappointment. But, I think what's been exciting is that there is a change," said Burney, referring to the handful of newly appointed Black women judges.

"We're all extremely qualified, and we all have a perspective that would benefit our colleagues in the judicial system as a whole," said Burney.

Both Burney and Johnson hope their stories inspire others to reach for the occupation they want, regardless of the representation seen currently in the role. "No matter what background they come from, if you work hard and it's something you really want to do, you can achieve your dreams," said Johnson.

"Be courageous to be the first, to be the second, to be the third... Someone has to knock down the door, and it might as well be you," said Burney.

Plus, they hope their dreams turned reality help someone out there, who is struggling through 2020. "There is hope. There are good things happening. And there's a future that is bright," said Burney.

News5 also reached out to Governor Polis' office, and received this statement:

“I am committed to building a Colorado For All which is why we need more people of color in positions of leadership and represented in our government in order to truly reflect our community and I am honored to appoint several highly qualified and dedicated Black women to serve in Colorado’s judicial branch. Colorado’s diversity is our strength and I am proud of the forward minded approach my legal team and our administration has made thus far but there is more work to be done to ensure there is more diversity on the bench and in our justice system.”
Shelby Wieman, Deputy Press Secretary