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Blackburned

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Cadorna and Brennan went through Denver's civil service appeal process in an effort to get him reinstated. Hearing officer John Criswell, a former state supreme court justice, noted acidly that Cadorna "seems blissfully unaware of the improper image portrayed to the public by a uniformed public safety officer asking for favors from a tradesman." But Criswell conceded that no one had proved theft. Normally, that would mean that Cadorna should be reinstated, but Criswell ruled that he had "voluntarily elected to retire" before his dismissal and therefore could only receive back pay for the time between his termination and the start of his pension. In addition, Criswell noted that a state law prohibits disabled firefighters from being re-examined for active duty if they are over the age of fifty.

In fact, Cadorna hadn't voluntarily retired at all. He'd applied for a disability pension after he was fired, a move that could hardly be considered voluntary. (The "disability" was a hearing loss Cadorna claimed to have suffered early in his career that never impeded his ability to be a firefighter; it simply lessened the tax bite on his pension.) Brennan appealed the ruling to the Civil Service Commission, calling Criswell's assertion of voluntary retirement "a non-factual non-finding of a non-evidentiary non-fact contradicted by all the evidence in the record." But here, too, Brennan found himself falling down a bureaucratic rabbit hole.

"The Commission is without authority to order the Hearing Officer to 'correct' a factual finding," the panel ruled, no matter how non-factual that finding might be. Nor was the commission interested in addressing Criswell's suggestion that if Cadorna was 49 instead of 51, he could have his job back.

Flummoxed, Brennan figured the next stop was federal court. He hadn't tried a case for several years and attempted to line up adequate co-counsel, but no one else would take on such a problematic lawsuit, he says. He offered to settle with the city for $250,000 and was told to pound sand. As the trial approached, Brennan put the case together himself, without even the services of a paralegal; it was just him, Cadorna and Brennan's assistant, Patch.

When people ask about other members of Brennan's firm, he introduces them to Patch, who happens to have four legs and a tail. "My blue heeler is my associate," he says.


Although he refers often to his two decades on the bench, Robert Blackburn has been a federal judge for only the past five years. He and Marcia Kreiger were nominated during President George W. Bush's first term, filling longstanding vacancies that had made Denver's federal district court one of the most backlogged in the nation ("Bench Pressed," February 11, 1999). Prior to 2002, Blackburn was a small-town lawyer, prosecutor, municipal judge and then district judge in southeastern Colorado, where he was widely regarded as a bright and fair-minded fellow.

Federal judges are appointed for life, a circumstance that tends to encourage imperiousness. Blackburn has earned generally high marks from attorneys; he comes across as a stickler for proper procedure but more even-tempered than some of his colleagues. On the Robing Room website (www.robingroom.com), "where judges are judged" and anonymous posters can unscientifically rate their experiences in federal court, he ranks higher than Judge Figa and Lewis Babcock and below Richard Matsch (who won national praise for his handling of the two-year trials of the Oklahoma City bombers) and Edward Nottingham (Qwest ex-CEO Joe Nacchio's judge, recently hammered by press reports about a visit to a strip club and a tiff with a disabled attorney over a handicapped parking spot).

But Blackburn has his critics, too. "A pedantic martinet with deep-seated issues and barely concealed hostility toward plaintiffs," reads one Robing Room review.

Civil-rights attorneys complain that it's difficult to get discrimination cases to federal juries in Denver because many judges routinely dismiss them on motions for summary judgment. Blackburn is no exception, they say. His most notable dismissal to date, the gender-discrimination case against the University of Colorado filed by two women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted at football recruiting parties, was overturned in September by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals; CU settled the case last week for $2.85 million.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast