The Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award is presented annually to an outstanding female attorney who has enriched the community through her legal and civic activities. But the award is much more than those simple words. This award has been presented to some of the most prominent women in our community — game changers, those women who truly light the path behind them as they forge ahead, allowing others to be illuminated by their experiences, knowledge, and mentorship.
This year’s recipient, Judge Karen Ashby, has spent nearly four decades blazing the trail for women and people of color in both the legal profession and the community at large. Her life and career have been filled with groundbreaking “firsts,” and she has done it all with self-deprecating humor and with a constant moral compass in her administration of justice.
Judge Ashby was born in England where her father, a Tuskegee Airman, was the only African American officer stationed at a military base in Cambridgeshire. Judge Ashby’s family later returned to the United States and was the first Black family to purchase a home in Rye Beach, New Hampshire. Judge Ashby went on to attend Williams College, becoming the first college graduate in her family. Unsure of what she wanted to do after graduation, she spent time in Oxford, England, where she decided to take the LSAT in order to pursue a career as a criminal defense attorney. She attended the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, attending night school for the last two years while clerking for Denver District Court Judge Leonard Plank.
Upon graduating from law school, Judge Ashby spent five years as a trial attorney in Denver for the Colorado Public Defender’s Office, at a time when the office had very few Black public defenders. During her time as a public defender, she was known for treating everyone equally, from staff to investigators to attorneys. She was interested in hearing everyone’s ideas, gave people her full attention in conversations, and gave her colleagues thoughtful guidance and support. She also notably worked to bridge the racial gap between public defenders and their client base.
After leaving the Public Defender’s Office, Judge Ashby spent ten years as a solo practitioner in the areas of criminal defense and family law. She began to consider a judgeship and unsuccessfully applied for the Denver County Court bench several times. Eventually, she received a call from the presiding judge of the Aurora Municipal Court, who asked her to apply to a vacant part-time position. She received the appointment and spent the next three-and-a-half years alternating weeks between her law practice and her judgeship. She particularly enjoyed the time that she spent in the juvenile division, which led her to apply to an opening on the Denver Juvenile Court bench. She was appointed by Governor Roy Romer in 1998, becoming the first Black woman appointed to the judiciary by a Colorado governor. Just seven months later, the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court asked Judge Ashby to serve as the Presiding Judge of the Denver Juvenile Court. This appointment came at a time when the Juvenile Court was in great turmoil, having been placed by the Supreme Court in a status similar to a receivership.
Judge Ashby served on the juvenile court bench for over fifteen years. She worked tirelessly on juvenile law issues both within the judiciary and within the larger community, including establishing and presiding over the Denver Juvenile Court’s Family Integrated Drug Court. Seeking an opportunity to have a more widespread impact, Judge Ashby applied for an opening on the Colorado Court of Appeals and was appointed in December 2013 on her first application. Once again, she made history as the first Black woman appointed to the Colorado Court of Appeals or other appellate court in the state of Colorado. She served as a Court of Appeals judge for six years and recently retired in 2019.
In addition to her groundbreaking “firsts,” Judge Ashby has had additional lasting impacts on the Colorado and national legal communities. She played a role in establishing the Colorado Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, which is an independent governmental agency vested with oversight and administration of Respondent Parents’ Counsel representation in Colorado. She was an original member of the Colorado Supreme Court Standing Committee on Family Issues. She served on the Colorado Legislative Task Force for the Continuing Examination of the Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness who are Involved in the Justice System, and chaired a subcommittee of the Task Force. She also chaired both the Colorado Court Improvement Committee and the Colorado Supreme Court’s Juvenile Rules Committee, served as a board member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and was a member of the National Steering Committee of the Courts Catalyzing Change Initiative, which worked to reduce disparate treatment and disproportionate representation of minority children in child welfare.
Judge Ashby achieved her many professional successes all while raising two children, one of whom is now a lawyer. In addition, she has served as a mentor to innumerable judges, attorneys, young professionals, and students. She is known for giving her time generously, and for making each of her mentees feel like they are the most important person in the room during her meetings with them.
Judge Ashby’s contributions and professional successes have been recognized throughout her career. In 1999, Judge Ashby received the Trailblazer Award from the American Association of University Women, Denver Chapter. She has received both the Distinguished Jurist Award and the Public Service Award from the Sam Cary Bar Association. In 2006, she was named Judge of the Year by the Colorado Court Appointed Special Advocates. In 2008, Judge Ashby was honored by the CWBA Foundation at its annual Raising the Bar event. In 2009, she received the Bicentennial Medal from her alma mater, Williams College. In making the award, Williams College noted Judge Ashby’s work to “creatively improve the lives of countless children under duress” and her “reputation for intelligence, compassion, and fairness.” In 2011, she received the Friend of Children Award from the North American Council on Adoptable Children. In 2012, the Colorado Department of Human Services/Colorado Court Improvement Project awarded Judge Ashby its Excellence in Practice Award – Judicial Officer. In 2013, she received the Professionalism Award from the Kempe Foundation for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Congratulations, Judge Ashby, on your well-deserved receipt of the Mary Lathrop Trailblazer Award!
Jennifer Lake is an Assistant United States Attorney in the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado. Prior to joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Lake spent two years in private practice in Denver, clerked for the Honorable Robert N. Scola, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, and served as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is a member of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association’s Professional Advancement Committee.