Judge Steve Bernard Escapes Ivory Tower

At age twelve, Judge Steve Bernard already knew he wanted to be a lawyer: he loved debate and discussion. Then, as a teenager in the 1960s, he became “a big fan of Martin Luther King.” “I felt strongly,” he recalls, “that the law was the place where one could serve one’s community.”

Steve BernardFortunately for Academy participants, Judge Bernard’s commitment to community service extends to volunteering as a course leader. He tackles complex, nuanced legal subjects with a keen wit, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a down-to-earth style. (For starters, he asks all his classes to dispense with the title “Judge” and call him “Steve.”)

Not surprisingly, civil rights issues are front and center in many of Steve’s Academy classes—either explicitly (as in his popular course on “The Stain,” aka slavery) or as one among many pervasive sub-texts (as in this fall’s The Constitution and the Bill of Rights in American Life). In his upcoming Spring 2014 course on Great Debates that have Shaped the Law, civil rights will once again loom large. This new course, he notes, “will drill down to both sides of pivotal court decisions that have had a significant effect on American society, placing those decisions in the context of history and how the law develops.” It will highlight—among others–the historic Marbury v. Madison and Miranda v. Arizona cases, as well as Brown v. Board of Education and Plessy v. Ferguson, which earlier affirmed the “separate but equal” doctrine underlying Jim Crow laws.

The Academy is not the only beneficiary of Steve’s community work, however. While serving as a Colorado Court of Appeals judge over the past seven years and as a deputy and chief deputy district attorney previously, Steve has taught numerous credit and noncredit classes on legal topics in a variety of community programs and educational institutions. In 2002 he was honored as Lecturer of the Year by the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council. His volunteering has also extended to serving on the Adams County’s Open Space Advisory Board and fulfilling such ad hoc roles as tour leader for a local Boy Scout troop eager to explore the new Colorado State Court House downtown, where Steve adjudicates cases on appeal.

Some observers contend that judges should not get involved in community commitments, due to the possibility of their being unduly influenced on legal issues or cases. But Steve believes strongly that it is “important for judges to be really present and active members of their communities and not sit in an Ivory Tower,” as long as they “set boundaries” about discussing issues that are or might come before their courts.

Steve not only values but “really likes” The Academy, he says emphatically, and hopes he can continue teaching with us. Our immediate response: can we get you to sign this long-term contract we’ve drawn up, Steve? Of course, the pay will be the same: the reward of knowing how much Academy participants revel in learning about the law and its role in American history, from an erudite judge who knows how to tell a joke (almost always on himself).