A task force has named four finalists in the naming-rights battle over the new Denver Justice Center -- and historic gangbuster Philip Van Cise isn't among them.
To those who know anything of Van Cise's remarkable but much-neglected story, the news is a bit puzzling, and disheartening. Not that the four selected candidates -- juvenile judge Ben Lindsey, influential district attorney Dale Tooley, former manager of safety John Simonet and district judge James Flanigan -- aren't deserving of recognition in their own right. They were all trailblazers and made huge contributions to the cause of criminal justice in this town. There are multiple naming opportunities in the new center, including the courthouse (which the task force wants to for both Flanigan and Lindsey), the plaza and the jail, and enough glory to share several ways.
But the case for Van Cise is one that merits special consideration.
To begin with, there's his stunning achievements as a one-term, maverick DA battling widespread corruption in Denver in the Roaring Twenties. Van Cise used sophisticated law enforcement techniques, including wiretaps and undercover agents, to bring down a well-entrenched and vicious gang of con men who had the cops on their payroll. He also put his life on the line to battle the growing political power of the Ku Klux Klan; my 2008 feature, "Scourge of the Underworld," offers the gritty details about a chapter of Denver's history that some city boosters would rather forget.
But wait, there's more. Van Cise was also a whistleblower in the aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre and a crusader for tougher professional standards for lawyers. The campaign to get him some civic recognition at last has been spearheaded not only by his family but by descendants of Lou Blonger, the underworld boss he toppled. And, as noted in my previous blog, "Justice Center Campaign Goes Straight to Video," his backers even have a nifty YouTube offering outlining his accomplishments.
So why was Van Cise shunned by the task force? Hard to say. He does have his liabilities -- he was Republican, for one thing, and he was instrumental in getting Ben Lindsey disbarred for taking money from a law client while still serving as a judge. And some people blame him for the death of newspaper mogul Frederick Bonfils, who was being ferociously deposed by Van Cise in a lawsuit around the time he succumbed to encephalitis.
But let's face it, the other candidates have their flaws, too. Why would you pick a disbarred judge, however heroic his own stand against the Klan, over the Fighting DA? Tooley is already roundly celebrated by his host of protégés. Flanigan, the city's first African-American judge, died only recently, and Simonet, God bless him, is still alive. Is the dubious trend of naming important edifices after still-kicking eminences (from Peña Boulevard to the Wellington E. Webb building) so ingrained in this burg that nobody else gets a chance?
The mayor can put in his own recommendations, of course, and the city council can debate the matter further. Hick, do the right thing. Ask yourself: What Would Van Cise Do?