Disorder in the Court

Judge John Kane has seen too many casualties in the War on Drugs. Now he demands a government retreat.


John Kane has spent most of his life in Colorado, but he can't claim to be a native. "I was born in New Mexico," he says with a boyish grin, "but I was conceived in Colorado."

His birth year, 1937, was the height of the Great Depression, and Kane's father -- John Lawrence Kane Sr. -- had gotten a job as a pharmacist in the tiny town of Tucumcari, New Mexico. Kane's parents had been living in Denver prior to moving to New Mexico, and they returned to Denver when he was just two years old.

Lawyer and longtime friend Michael Canges praises Kane's candor.
Anthony Camera
Lawyer and longtime friend Michael Canges praises Kane's candor.

The Irish Catholic family settled in the neighborhood around 16th and Steele streets, near City Park. Most of the families in the area were either Irish or Jewish. A world war soon erupted and turned the young Kane family upside down when John Sr. was called to service as a Navy medical officer on a tanker.

"He was involved in several major Pacific battles, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Essentially, he was the ship's doctor," Kane says. The elder Kane saw the carnage of war firsthand as he treated sailors injured in battle.

Also disturbing were the stories the future judge heard of the mass murder of Jews in Europe.

"Lots of friends of mine had relatives who were lost in the Holocaust," says Kane. "When you thought of government, you thought of the German government, which was evil."

Like others in his generation, his beliefs were forged by World War II.

"I think the war had a powerful effect on all of us," he says. "We'd go to the movies and see war propaganda films. There was rationing. My dad wasn't [home]."

Kane attended a Catholic elementary school, Byers Junior High and South High School. He recalls Denver as a city in which you could tell someone's ethnic background simply by finding out their address.

"The Italians lived in one area, the Germans lived in another. You had a Polish-speaking Catholic church in Globeville. There were lots of Poles and other Slavic people who lived there. They came out to Denver from Chicago to work in the packinghouses."

Most of the ethnic communities were grouped around churches that catered to immigrants. Many of the churches in northwest Denver, such as Mount Carmel, had largely Italian congregations. A Dutch community centered on South Pearl Street had its own distinct houses of worship as well. "They actually wore wooden shoes for their festival," says Kane.

He remembers very little ethnic tension in Denver in those days, but he always knew that his family was not part of the Protestant Anglo-Saxon aristocracy that controlled the city's most important institutions.

As he grew older, Kane became more and more aware of one Denver racial group whose members were true outsiders: the black community. Even though Denver never had the overt racism found in the South, Denver's African-Americans often had second-class status. Kane realized there was an unspoken dividing line that ran through City Park, with neighborhoods north of the park reserved for blacks.

"In those days, life anywhere in the United States wasn't good for blacks, even in Denver," he says. "The downtown theaters were segregated, and geographically, people were separated."

There were only about a dozen black students at South High School. Likewise, when Kane went on to the University of Colorado in Boulder, the school had only a tiny number of black students. Nevertheless, he was greatly affected by a black English professor, Charles Nilon, who helped him to see things through the eyes of black Americans. When he entered law school at the University of Denver in the late 1950s, he found himself in the middle of a racial controversy that was a harbinger of the civil-rights revolution.

"There was a Jewish student from Chicago who was married to a black woman from Jamaica," recalls Kane. "Several professors disapproved. They didn't want him to be permitted to join one of the law-school fraternities. There was a black guy in our class as well. The black guy and I heard about the Jewish guy and his wife and said, 'To hell with it. We're not going to join any organization like that.' We got other people to join with us in that view."

Eventually the professors backed down and invited the student to join the fraternity. But Kane's first experience of challenging the establishment was just the beginning of a deeper commitment.

During his early years as an attorney, Kane lived in an apartment at 14th and Lafayette streets, near the First Unitarian Church. One day he noticed a sign in front of the church saying that the minister, Richard Henry, was giving a series of sermons on capital punishment. He started attending and met several attorneys involved in the civil-rights movement, including the legendary black lawyer Irving Andrews. Soon Kane found himself defending civil-rights protestors in court.

"The Congress on Racial Equality was a somewhat militant group -- they were picketing and believed in public demonstrations," says Kane. "The CORE people would picket, and they'd get arrested for picketing on public property. They needed legal representation."

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