R. Brooke Jackson, the federal judge in Colorado who curbed the Denver Police Department’s use of chemical weapons and projectiles against peaceful racial justice protesters last summer, will step down later this year and create a vacancy for President Joe Biden to fill.
“If a store’s windows must be broken to prevent a protestor’s facial bones from being broken or eye being permanently damaged, that is more than a fair trade,” the judge wrote amid roiling demonstrations in the wake of the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd.
Jackson, who will turn 74 this week, was a 2010 nominee of President Barack Obama to the seven-member U.S. District Court in Colorado. The U.S. Senate confirmed him to the position in August the following year. At the time of his nomination, Jackson was the chief judge of the First Judicial District in Jefferson and Gilpin counties.
Effective September 30, Jackson will take senior status, a form of retirement that permits him to continue handling cases while also enabling Biden to appoint a new district judge. There is one current vacancy, for which Colorado’s Democratic U.S. senators have recommended corporate attorney Regina M. Rodriguez. The White House has not yet announced its nominee for the open seat.
Terry Fox, who is a judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals and a former colleague of Jackson’s at the law firm Holland & Hart, considers Jackson a "mentor for life" and someone who always does the right thing, “regardless of whether it’s popular.”
“He never explicitly told me this, but I’m thinking maybe he experienced feeling out of sorts coming from Montana and going to the East Coast where maybe some people were not as open-minded,” she said.
Jackson’s resume includes degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, and more than two decades as a state and federal judge. Documents from his confirmation show that during his first two years of law school, he worked summer jobs in California as an assembly line worker and a night watchman.
After becoming a state judge in Jefferson County, Jackson was assigned a case stemming from the Columbine High School mass murder of 1999. Jackson ordered the release of a preliminary report, videotapes and copies of 911 tapes to the families of the victims, after the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office denied their request.
On the federal bench, Jackson handled an assortment of noteworthy cases: he he presided over the trial of Harold Henthorn, convicted of pushing his wife to her death in Rocky Mountain National Park. He also ordered the federal government to redo an environmental assessment of a mine in northwest Colorado.
Then in 2017, he granted an injunction against the city of Fort Collins, blocking the city's ban on women going topless.
The ordinance "perpetuates a stereotype ingrained in our society that female breasts are primarily objects of sexual desire whereas male breasts are not," he wrote.
Following the racial justice protests of 2020, Jackson reviewed video of interactions between Denver police officers and demonstrators. While acknowledging that police have a difficult and thankless job, he called the actions of some personnel against protestors "disgusting."
"I wish to make certain things perfectly clear," the judge indicated. "First, people have an absolute right to demonstrate and protest the actions of governmental officials, including police officers. It is one of the many freedoms on which this country was built."
Jackson's order placed limits on the firing of projectiles at demonstrators, prohibited officers from obstructing their body-worn cameras and clarified how police must issue orders to disperse.
In addition to the two trial court vacancies in Colorado, Biden also will nominate successors for two judges on the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Covering six states, the 10th Circuit saw the retirements of judges from Colorado and Kansas within the first month of the Biden administration.
John Walsh, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado, said Jackson holds jury trials in high esteem, and "thought they they were important way to resolve disputes, and the process itself was an important part of the democratic system."
A former clerk of Jackson's, Chuan "CiCi" Cheng, who is currently an associate with Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell in Denver, also spoke of the judge's love for trials and his mentorship of his clerks.
"When I clerked, I had almost a dozen trials in one year, which is unheard of," she said. "My favorite things that I learned about jury trials were from clerking with him and seeing how he interacted with jurors and always treated them with the utmost of respect. And jurors loved him."
Before taking office, Biden's legal counsel issued guidance to senators asking for judicial candidates from "historically underrepresented" experiences, including public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys. In naming Rodriguez as their preferred choice for the current vacancy, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper took some criticism because she did not fall into those categories.
Fox, the Court of Appeals judge, agreed that the White House, in nominating Jackson's replacement, should ensure the federal bench reflects the community it serves.
"We don't have as many voices from the criminal defense side," she said. "I think that's a voice that needs to be part of the conversation. That's what I would tell them: look at what's already on the bench and then try to find something that will complement that rather than just replicate it."
This story has been updated with additional comments.