Gregory Kellam Scott, Colorado’s first — and only — Black Supreme Court justice, dies at 72
- April 1, 2021
Gregory Kellam Scott, the only Black person to serve on the Colorado Supreme Court and a role model for the state’s Black legal community, died unexpectedly Wednesday at his home in Anderson, Indiana. He was 72.
“He was a giant,” Patty Powell, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said Thursday.
Scott was sworn onto the court on Jan. 15, 1993, after being appointed by Gov. Roy Romer, and he served seven years, stepping down in 2000 to become vice president and general counsel of Kaiser-Hill LLC, a private company contracted to clean up Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons facility in the northwest Denver suburbs.
In announcing his retirement, Scott said, “I can only hope that I have applied the law according to the facts before the court so as to leave it and Colorado better than when I first arrived. This has been the experience of a lifetime.”
Before he sought a seat on the Colorado Supreme Court, Scott asked for advice from friends, including Powell, one of his DU law students, on whether or not he should go for it.
“We, of course, immediately said, ‘Duh, you should do that,’” Powell said. “He was such an intellectual giant. He loved the law. He was a good person, too. All of those things added up to your needing to do that. And you would be the first Black justice on the Colorado Supreme Court and that diversity is needed.”
On the bench, Scott participated in about 1,000 opinions, according to a news release announcing his retirement, with Hill v. Thomas among his most notable. In that opinion, written by Scott, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a state law that created an eight-foot buffer zone between protesters and people entering Colorado abortion clinics. The opinion survived a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Scott earned his law degree at Indiana University. He and his wife Carolyn moved to Denver in 1977 after he accepted a job with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s regional office, where he worked as a trial attorney. Carolyn Scott also was a lawyer, and the couple had two sons, Joshua and Elijah. Both sons died within a year of each other while in their late 30s.
“They were so strong,” Powell said. “It was devastating.”
A brilliant legal mind
Fellow justices on Thursday remembered Scott, who always wore bow ties, as a brilliant lawyer but also as a down-to-earth and likable person.
Retired Justice Gregory Hobbs said his chambers were across a hallway from Scott and the two would sit in Scott’s office after work and listen to his folk music collection. They also talked about travel, especially to Africa, because Scott had visited multiple countries, including when he served as co-chairman of an American delegation that observed national presidential elections in Gabon in 1998.
Scott was active in the community before he joined the Supreme Court and continued to participate in organizations after his appointment, retired Denver County Judge Gary Jackson said. Scott belonged to the Boulé, an African-American fraternity, as well as the NAACP, the Urban League and the Sam Cary Bar Association.
“There’s some judges that isolate themselves once they reach that point in their career,” Jackson said. “Greg never did.”
But it is Scott’s role as the first — and so far only — Black person to serve on the state’s highest court that will be his lasting legacy.
“He felt, I think, an obligation to make sure that the experiences that he had had in life were voiced in the conversations where they would enrich the thought process,” former Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, who served on the Supreme Court with Scott in the 1990s, said. “I think the Court and the law in Colorado, as well as the appearance of a representative judiciary, was much better for Greg’s contributions and his presence.”
Powell met Scott when he was her law professor in 1982. She signed up for his classes on corporations and securities law, not only because she wanted to learn about those subjects, but because as a Black student she wanted to learn from the only Black professor in the law school.
He served as a mentor, showing the few Black law students how to maneuver in a predominantly white profession.
“He gave those of us who were underrepresented immediate credibility that we were capable of learning the law,” she said. “With other professors, you had to earn it because of unconscious bias. It was empowering and validating to have a Black professor.”
A spark that remained
After moving away, Scott maintained his Colorado ties. He returned to Denver to speak at a City Council meeting in support of naming the new courthouse after James Flanigan, Denver’s first Black district court judge.
“He had a passion. He had a calling,” Jackson said. “He served as a role model for many, many diverse people of color who didn’t think they had the opportunity to be corporate lawyers, security lawyers, law professors, judges.”
After moving to Anderson, his wife’s hometown, Scott served as the executive director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, Powell said. He was forced to retire several years ago after a near-fatal car accident that impacted his mobility and speech.
But it didn’t dampen his interest in the law, politics and diversity, she said.
“That spark was still there.”
Scott died on the same day as retired Colorado Supreme Court Justice Mary Mullarkey, who was the first woman to serve as the state’s chief justice. Colleagues described the deaths of the two legal pioneers as enormous losses for Colorado.
Funeral arrangements for Scott have not been set.