Most state judges don’t have to spend much time explaining their job to lawyers. But there aren’t many jurists out there with a position quite like Presiding Disciplinary Judge William Lucero’s.
As PDJ, Lucero hears cases involving Colorado attorneys accused of ethics violations, which the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel investigates and prosecutes. Lawyers have been known to mistakenly conflate the two independent bodies. Lucero recalls an instance when he’d introduced himself to an out-of-state attorney at a conference. The attorney, perhaps spotting the word ‘disciplinary’ on Lucero’s nametag, said to him, “Oh, you must work for John Gleason” — the Attorney Regulation Counsel at the time. This is like assuming a Denver district judge works for District Attorney Beth McCann.
While the PDJ and OARC are each separate pieces of the state Supreme Court’s attorney regulation system, the latter has gained visibility over the years through its outreach efforts. Lucero, in turn, is making a point of delivering talks around the state.
“I came to realize that a lot of [lawyers] — and even lawyers in Colorado — they don’t know what we do,” Lucero said. “That’s one of the reasons I decided I need to get out and talk to people about what we do.”
The Office of the PDJ, which the Colorado Supreme Court established in 1999 with PDJ Roger Keithley, adjudicates not just disciplinary cases but also cases involving lawyer disability, the unauthorized practice of law and, more recently, character and fitness matters for bar applicants.
Lucero, the state’s second-ever PDJ, has presided over the disciplinary court since his appointment in 2004. Before that, he’d served as a prosecutor in the Denver District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a combined 32 years. The Colorado Hispanic Bar Association honored him as its Outstanding Hispanic Lawyer for 1995, and he was inducted in the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2002. Lucero was the Denver DA’s Office’s chief trial deputy and had served on the PDJ’s antecedent grievance committee when he was picked to ascend to his current, unique judgeship.
Joining the ‘Experiment’
Although he’s spent his professional life in Denver, Lucero’s roots lie in Southern Colorado; he was born in Trinidad and grew up in Pueblo. His decision to leave the Steel City followed a brief period after graduating college where he’d felt “lost.” He was mourning his brother, Pat, who in 1968 died fighting in Vietnam. Lucero sought to become a teacher but struggled to find a job in the state. Angry about his brother’s loss, he even considering enlisting, himself. On his grandparents’ encouragement, however, Lucero instead applied to the University of Denver College of Law.
He began his career in 1972 as an attorney in the Denver District Attorney’s Office, where he and now-Denver County Judge Gary Jackson were the only two minority prosecutors in the office at the time, he said. Over the next three decades, Lucero went from trying violent crime cases in state court with the DA’s office to prosecuting tax evasion and bank fraud cases at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In 2001, Lucero returned to the Denver DA’s Office before accepting his judgeship in 2004.
At that time, the attorney regulation scheme Colorado has today was still “an experiment,” he said. Previously, complaints against lawyers in the state were investigated by an all-volunteer panel of lawyers and then decided by another similar panel. The proceedings were slow — complaints could take two years to adjudicate, Lucero said. Meanwhile, an offending attorney would continue unethical behavior, “cutting a wide swath through Colorado, cheating clients, perhaps,” before facing any sanctions, he added.