Guest Columns

SMITH: MICHAEL BENDER THEN AND NOW

‘Justice’ describes Justice Bender to a tee

Congratulations to Chief Justice Mike Bender for his 16 years on the Colorado Supreme Court and his record of extraordinary achievement. He has repeatedly throughout his career stood up for justice and fairness.

While we were students at the University of Colorado Law School, Mike played a huge role in my future. Toward the end of my second year, he came to a number of us on behalf of a summer program called the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council (LSCRRC). Its goal was to recruit law students to go to the South and work in the civil rights movement. I volunteered and was assigned to Floyd McKissick, the national director of the Congress on Racial Equality in Durham, North Carolina. While there, we lived in a Freedom House, organized demonstrations and marches, desegregated a courtroom, and defended a black lawyer named Reginald Frazier in a case against the North Carolina Bar Association. I even had the chance to assist Floyd with one of his private clients, the singer James Brown. The summer ended prematurely with a near-deadly encounter with the KKK, but working for Floyd McKissick was a life changing experience for which I have always been grateful to Mike.

Looking back on it today is painful given the outcry over the Zimmerman verdict and the sense that our continuing obsession with racial issues is far from over. Enormous progress was made in those days, often under conditions far more dangerous than anything we can imagine today. Imagine what it would be like if you still had Friday night Klan rallies with crosses burning, Grand Dragon Bobby Jones shrieking from the podium, and protection provided by the North Carolina state police? This was 1965, a year after the Klan murdered James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the power wielded by the Klan was overwhelming.

Imagine also the outcry if you were to walk into a courtroom today and be told that whites sat on one side and blacks on the other!

Chief Justice Mike Bender

That same summer, Mike worked for John Kane, the Public Defender of Adams County and now a distinguished U.S. District Judge. Mike introduced me to John for whom I went to work after graduation. That was another life- changing experience and again I am grateful to Mike.

Justice was the theme of our work. That’s the word I always think of in regard to Mike Bender as well as John Kane. It’s a simple but critical word at a time when so many lawyers are so dedicated to simply making money. I don’t know what Mike will do next but I am sure that working for justice will be a major focus.

Good luck, Mike and thanks for your service.

Morgan Smith went to work for John Kane in the fall of 1966 and was appointed Public Defender of Adams County in 1967. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.