In every town in the nation, there are people who, for all practical purposes, are giants, yet remain essentially anonymous to many or even most of the people whose town and lives they have changed. In Denver and Colorado, Roger Cisneros, is a giant. But it is impossible to say Cisneros’ name without also mentioning that of his wife, Adelia. The pair was inseparable.
The couple was found Monday inside their West Yale home in Denver, victims of what police say was carbon monoxide poisoning. Their car had been left running in their garage. Cisneros was 93, she was 89. Police are calling their deaths “non-criminal in nature.”
Born in Questa, New Mexico, Cisneros was educated in a one-room school that had no running water or electricity. His parents later made the decision to send him away to Albuquerque and Menaul High School. Later, when he joined the military in 1943, the Army Air Corps had no room for him in its pilot training program and Cisneros became a cryptologist in the south Pacific.
Following the war, he and his wife settled in Denver where he attended Westminster Law School, a precursor to the University of Denver Law School. He earned his law degree in 1957 and, at the time, was one of only five Latino attorneys in Colorado.
As a young attorney, Cisneros won a major victory in the case of “Gallegos v. People of Colorado.” In that case, the defendant had provided police with an involuntary confession. Cisneros appealed the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court which reversed the original court’s decision.
In 1964, he became one of the first Latinos to serve in the Colorado Legislature, winning election to the State Senate three times. The Rocky Mountain News selected him as its outstanding freshman Senator. In 1977, he was appointed to the Colorado Bench. It was there where he met a young Public Defender who would remain his friend for the next nearly half century.
“I am really sad about it, devastated,” said former Denver Manager of Safety Manuel Martinez, now partner at the Denver Law firm of Bryan Cave. “He was my mentor.” Outside the courtroom, Martinez relationship with Cisneros blossomed into a life-long friendship. But inside the courtroom, it was all business with some exceptions.
Martinez retells the story of a client who was looking at a prison term. “I told my client, ‘when you come to court, bring your mother.’” At sentencing, Cisneros, seeing the man’s mother, found an option to prison for Martinez client but ordered the young Public Defender to his chambers. There, Cisneros gave tacit approval for the young attorney’s tactic. “I can’t send someone to prison if his mother shows up.”
Martinez said Cisneros not only helped him take off some of his “rough edges,” but also took the time with a number of young attorneys to school them on the courtroom and make them better at their craft. “He was just a really good judge.” As he rose in city government, Martinez made certain it was Judge Cisneros who would swear him in. But Cisneros touched the lives of many others in Denver.
Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña was out of the country when news of the Cisneros’ death was announced. “Roger Cisneros was the ‘quiet giant,’” said the former Mayor. Cisneros, he said, “accomplished extraordinary things without fanfare. He was a gentleman and warrior.” Peña said Cisneros and his wife devoted their lives to public service with “grace and compassion and love for each other and for those they served.”
“I was fortunate enough to have practiced in front of Judge Cisneros when I was a deputy district attorney,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann. She described him as a “kind, smart, and hard-working judge who was well-respected by all.” McCann said she and Cisneros remained friends long after his days on the bench.
Retired Senior Judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals Lorenzo Marquez said Cisneros “cared very deeply about so many of the things that were going on,” in the Latino community and across Denver. Marquez, whose daughter, Monica, sits on the Colorado Supreme Court, said Cisneros earned respect and should be remembered as a good and decent man. “I just can’t say enough good things about him.”
In the early sixties, Cisneros, then one of only a handful of Latino attorneys in Denver, had had enough of the incendiary headlines the city’s two newspapers routinely ran when a Latino was named in a crime. “They were convicting people before a trial,” Cisneros once said. Knowing he was potentially risking his career by challenging two powerful papers, he and a handful of his Latino colleagues met with the Post and News editorial boards and demanded an end to the practice. The papers agreed and adopted a new, fair and responsible policy.
While the law took up much of his time, Cisneros was indefatigable in pursuit of making Denver a better place. He served on a number of boards and was a driving force in the creation of many others. He was on the board of the Denver Art Museum, Denver Commission on Community Relations and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission. He was also founder of the Board of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and founder of The Latin American Educational Foundation (LAEF), the Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA). He was also a driving force behind the creation of the Latino Bar Association. A jury room at the Denver Justice Center bears his name.
“Colorado has lost two great and inspiring people,” said Ramona Martinez, former President of the Denver City Council. Martinez and her late husband, Lawrence, were decades-long friends of the Cisneros. The Cisneros, said Martinez, “spent their lives working together supporting one another while they supported the people of Colorado.” “Judge Cisneros and ‘Dee’ will be missed but leave behind a legacy unsurpassed in Colorado history.”
Despite their age, Cisneros and his wife remained active in community and civic engagements and were regulars at social events where they were routinely introduced. The pair modestly and simply waved their acknowledgment.
From the most meager of origins in rural New Mexico, Cisneros rose to an emeritus-like standing in Colorado. He was known simply as ‘Judge Cisneros’ by members of Congress, governors and mayors. And while he certainly could have found comfort in circles of great power and prestige, Cisneros seemed to be more at home among those who had neither. He was quite comfortable to be in the company of the nameless and faceless. If ever there was one, Judge Roger Cisneros was the quintessential man of the people. And wherever you found him, you would be certain to find his lovely Adelia, or ‘D,’ nearby.
Services for the Cisneros’ are pending.