Excerpt from: Kane, Jr. and Tepker, Jr., “Five of the Greatest: William E. Doyle,” 27 The Colorado Lawyer 21 (July 1998), quoted in Carrigan, “In Memoriam: The Hon. William E. Doyle” (citation omitted).

Five of the Greatest

William E. Doyle

by John L. Kane, Jr., Harry F. Tepker, Jr.


In 1968, a bomb exploded at the Denver home of U.S. District Judge William E. Doyle. Some of the judge’s friends feared

the bomb was the work of a bigot willing to resort to terrorism to block desegregation in Denver. As the judge’s friends knew, Doyle was a man of principle who “loved the law as much as anyone.”1 If he shared his friends’ fears, he never admitted it, and he never hesitated to carry out his duty to uphold the mandate of school desegregation despite controversy and resistance.

Childhood Years And Education

William E. Doyle was born in Denver on February 5, 1911. His father, William R. Doyle, worked as a teamster on a delivery cart for the Tivoli Brewing Company. His mother, Sarah Harrington, was the daughter of a laborer.2 At the age of eight, the future jurist sold newspapers. He became an accomplished amateur boxer and was selected to the All-City football team as a tackle for West Denver High School.

Doyle worked throughout his high school and college years at the University of Colorado waiting tables, moving freight, and hostling. Following three years of undergraduate study, in 1933 he began his law studies. He put himself through George Washington University Law School by working as a guard in the Senate Office Building from 4 p.m. to midnight.3

While in law school, Doyle met and later married Helen Roberta Sherfey, a fellow law student. After graduating in 1937, Doyle returned to Denver to take the bar examination.

Early Practice and Judgeship

In the years before World War II, Doyle followed the example of many lawyers who practiced law for private clients and for the public as deputy district attorney. During the early war years, he maintained a private practice, until he enlisted in 1943. Doyle served for the duration in the infantry in Africa, Italy, Sicily, France, and Germany, before being commissioned a second lieutenant at the end of the war.

With the return of peace, Doyle resumed his private practice in 1946. He also began to teach tort law at the old Westminster Law School. He continued to teach this course at 8 a.m., five days a week, for the next twenty years.4 At various times throughout his career, he also taught for the University of Denver and the University of Colorado. As well, he started and lectured at the first bar examination refresher course in the nation.5

In 1948, Doyle was appointed to serve as a state court judge for the remaining two months of an unexpired term. He then returned to the practice of law as chief deputy district attorney in Denver, a post he held for three years. Doyle remembered trial practice in Denver in those years as a rough and tumble experience. Cases required aggressive investigation, but the rules of procedure allowed little formal discovery and pretrial conferences.6 While in private practice, Doyle defended two clients against prosecutions by Robert H. McWilliams, a member of the district attorney’s office. Doyle and McWilliams, later his colleague on the Court of Appeals, agreed that Doyle won one case when he should have lost and lost the other when he should have won.7

Doyle’s involvement in politics was brief, but successful. In 1952, Doyle made one unsuccessful bid for the state supreme court, though he outpolled his party’s presidential candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson. In 1956, he managed the successful U.S. Senate campaign of his brother-in-law, John Carroll. Two years later, Doyle was elected to the Colorado Supreme Court with the support of “flocks of volunteers from the ranks of his former students.”8 He stayed on the bench of that court until his appointment to the U.S. District Court in 1961.

A trial judge of deep philosophical mien, Judge Doyle was considered very compassionate toward civil litigants and tough on defendants in criminal cases. He was known to extend liability in personal injury cases to new areas. In criminal cases, he was known to refuse plea bargains because he felt the disposition was too lenient. Lawyers at the time spoke of his high academic achievements and his pedagogical bent. “One other thing,” it was said, “[h]e knows nobody in the courtroom. Not even his best friend. Everybody will agree to that.”9

Courage and Integrity on The Federal Bench

In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Doyle to the U.S. District Court of Colorado, where he served for ten years. Doyle was the second Democrat and the first Irish-American appointed to the federal court in Colorado.

During the 1960s, federal trial judges occasionally sat on three-judge panels. On one such panel, Doyle dissented when the majority upheld Colorado’s voter-approved federal plan for reapportionment of the legislature.10 The plan distributed House seats on a population basis, but Senate seats were apportioned by considering geographic and economic factors as well as population. The year was 1963. The U.S. Supreme Court shared Doyle’s view of one man, one vote, in the case of Reynolds v. Sims, and required the reapportionment of all state legislatures on a strict population basis.11

A prodigious writer while on the district bench, Judge Doyle published 234 opinions in addition to spending thousands of hours presiding over both bench and jury trials. His numerous opinions in the seemingly unending Denver school desegregation case of Keyes v. School District No. 112 are exemplars of judicial craftsmanship. So, too, are his oft-cited securities law opinions in Trussell v. United Underwriters, Ltd.13 Judge Doyle’s opinions are characterized by crisp, short declarative sentences, rigid attention to factual details, and full discussion of applicable precedents. As a jurist whose lifetime avocation was teaching, his opinions reflect his ability to instruct as well as inform.

Keyes, in addition to being the judge’s most notable case, was perhaps the most significant litigation to be decided by the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. It also proved to be one of the most protracted and controversial legal battles in circuit history. In Keyes, unlike earlier Supreme Court cases, a threshold issue was whether local school boards had ever been guilty of deliberate segregation. In Judge Doyle’s words:

Segregative purpose may be overt, as in the dual system maintained in some states prior to Brown v. Board of Education, . . . or it may be covert, in which case purpose normally must be proved by circumstantial evidence. In order to satisfy this element of purpose, the intent to segregate need not be the sole motive for a school district’s action; it need only be one of several factors which motivated the school administration. Thus, regardless of how this purpose is manifested, it is clear that: “the constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color . . . can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers, nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted ‘geniously or ingeniously.'”14

Doyle found that school officials deliberately perpetuated patterns of segregation, particularly with respect to portions of the school district adjacent to predominantly black areas. Denver authorities had selected sites for schools, manipulated student attendance zones, and maintained a neighborhood school policy.

Judge Doyle’s courage and integrity were never questioned, but they indeed were put to severe tests. In March 1968, a homemade bomb was thrown against his house. It missed the front window and bounced off the wall onto the porch, causing little physical damage.15 The perpetrators were never caught, but rumors still persist that the bombing was an attempt at retaliation for his decisions as a federal judge, rather than a random act of vandalism.

Describing the obligations of judging, Judge Doyle once said, “You have to pay attention to the fabric of the existing law. It’s the only companion you have. This is a lonely spot.”16 His judicial philosophy was firmly embedded in natural law doctrines. He deplored pragmatist and relativist views. “I will not seek merely to referee,” he said. “I consider there must be an effort in depth during these solemn controversies.”17

In 1971, when Judge Doyle was in line to become chief judge of the U.S. District Court, President Nixon nominated him to succeed Alfred Murrah on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The President’s choice was, by some reports, influenced by “a bit of local political maneuvering” to keep Doyle, a Democrat, from becoming chief judge.18

On the Tenth Circuit Bench

As a judge on the Tenth Circuit in the 1970s and 1980s, Judge Doyle wrote 644 opinions covering the full range of moral, social, and political issues to be presented to the federal courts. Of course, he confronted other school desegregation cases,19 as well as controversies respecting civil rights,20 protection of the environment,21 and constitutional liberty.

On the Tenth Circuit, Doyle continued to be “very liberal in such matters as civil rights.”22 He also practiced what he proclaimed as legal doctrine. Doyle “was the first to hire black law clerks. He hired a law clerk who was completely deaf, who turned out to be one of his great clerks.”23 However, Doyle’s philosophy was not a product of facile ideology. “[H]e was also very conservative in criminal matters. He had been a prosecutor at one time in his life, and it may have shaped some of his feelings in the criminal area.”24

Judge Doyle earned a reputation for scholarship in his opinions.25 He rarely articulated broader ethical, moral, or policy arguments for his decisions. Although his friends and colleagues described him as a man of intense conviction, his opinions–with at least one notable exception26–seemed to be constructed to de-emphasize his personal views. His rhetoric was usually restrained and understated.

Doyle enjoyed his work as a judge. At the age of seventy-one, after attending a two-year program of summer courses for judges, he earned a masters degree from the University of Virginia. He also followed the examples of Judges Phillips and Murrah and became active in efforts to promote judicial reform. He was a member of the Council of Judges, a member of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee to Implement the Magistrates Act, and a member of the committee to plan seminars for newly appointed federal judges and the panel to conduct seminars for newly appointed federal judges.

Judge Logan at one time expressed “doubt if anyone else on the court among my acquaintances ever felt so similarly addicted to life as an active circuit judge.” Logan described one visit with Judge McKay at Doyle’s home:

[Judge Doyle] expressed his feeling that he never really wanted to retire, he just wanted to go on writing law. He envied us as youngsters, in his eyes, who had most of our judicial future ahead of us. He said he knew that someday he would have to take senior status, but that he dreaded that particular day.27

The day Judge Doyle dreaded came in December 1984, when he wrote to President Reagan of his decision to assume senior status. In a newspaper report, Doyle sounded optimistic: “I think I’ll enjoy my senior status. There’s a little more detachment there and less anxiety about getting opinions written.”28 As friends expected, Doyle continued to work.

Doyle the Man

The controversial and difficult Keyes desegregation case, along with the bombing of his house, had extracted a toll from Judge Doyle that is difficult to calculate or document. Of course, Doyle was not the only one affected. Shortly after the 1968 bombing, Judge Doyle’s wife, Helen, decided to move to Florida.29 Some of Judge Doyle’s friends believed the bombing was a factor in her decision. Others believed she moved because she suffered from emphysema and the Florida climate was better for her health, or that maybe the marriage was simply strained for any number of reasons. Only one fact was certain. Though Judge Doyle visited his wife twice a year, their separation made his life a more lonely one.

Judge Doyle was an enigma and “a very interesting and complex man.”30 On the one hand, his “gregarious nature and engaging Irish humor endeared him to generations of lawyers.”31And yet, for whatever reasons, Judge Doyle “lived alone in a somewhat isolated existence.”32He was an intense person, whose drive and principle commanded the respect of colleagues and other professional associates. He “applied the self-discipline earlier acquired as a boxer, football player and infrantryman to grappling with tough legal problems.”33

Of course, there was another side to Judge Doyle’s intensity and passion. “He had a hot Irish temper.”34 One of Judge Doyle’s colleagues on the Tenth Circuit, John P. Moore, said, “Judge Doyle’s penchant for justice made him rather difficult to work with at times. He could challenge any panel member to deeply search his or her conscience, to do thorough research.”35

Many of Judge Doyle’s friends and colleagues believed that his character was deeply influenced by his faith. Judge Carrigan wrote:

Perhaps the strongest unifying theme in Judge Doyle’s life was his devout Catholic faith. A daily communicant at Mass, his faith was the source of the powerful conscience, innate sense of fairness and thirst for universal justice that marked his career.36

When Judge Doyle died in 1986, he was remembered in The New York Times as the judge “who presided over a landmark desegregation case in Denver.”37 William Holloway, chief judge of the Tenth Circuit, described Doyle in the Times as “a judge of deep conscience, compassion and courage.”38 However, Judge Doyle’s close friend, former Chief Judge Alfred Arraj of the U.S. District Court in Denver, offered the most descriptive tribute:

I have come to know the fibre of this man–his strength of character–his depth of perception–his industry–his courage–his intellect and his capacity for friendship. . . . No judge who ever sat on our Court did so with greater respect for the obligations of such occupancy. His constant wish was that he gain the light to see and to do right.39


1. Letter from Judge James K. Logan to Harry F. Tepker, Jr. (Dec. 21, 1990) [hereinafter, “Logan Letter”].

2. See Wimberly, “New Judge Belongs to Idealist School,” Rocky Mountain News, Sept. 24, 1961.

3. Id.

4. “In Memoriam to the Honorable William E. Doyle,” 64 Denver U. L.Rev. 101 (1987) [hereinafter, “Doyle Memoriam”].

5. Wimberly, supra, note 2.

6. Interview by Dr. Theodore Fetter with Judge William E. Doyle (May 25, 1977).

7. Id.

8. Carrigan, In Memoriam: The Hon. William E. Doyle 1 (May 20, 1986) (unpublished manuscript).

9. Rocky Mountain News, July 27, 1969.

10. See Lisco v. Love, 219 F.Supp. 922, 939-45 (D.Colo. 1963) (Doyle, J., dissenting), rev’d sub nom. Lucas v. Forty-Fourth General Assembly of Colorado, 377 U.S. 713 (1964).

11. Lucassupra, note 10; see also Rocky Mountain News, July 27, 1969.

12. While serving on the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, Judge Doyle wrote six opinions in Keyes: 380 F.Supp. 673 (1974); 368 F.Supp. 207 (1973); 313 F.Supp. 90 (1970); 313 F.Supp. 61 (1970); 303 F.Supp. 289 (1969); 303 F.Supp. 279 (1969).

13. 228 F.Supp. 757 (D.Colo. 1964); 236 F.Supp. 801 (D.Colo. 1964).

14. 313 F.Supp. 61, 74 (D.Colo. 1974) [quoting Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1, 17 (1958)].

15. See Rocky Mountain News, March 27, 1968; The Denver Post, March 26, 1968.

16. Rocky Mountain News, July 27, 1969.

17. Wimberly, supra, note 2.

18. “Judge Doyle Will Semi-Retire,” The Denver Post, Dec. 1, 1984.

19. United States v. Unified School District No. 500, 610 F.2d 688 (10th Cir. 1979).

20. See Tuttle v. City of Oklahoma City, 728 F.2d 456 (10th Cir. 1984) (the city was liable for a police officer’s “plainly and grossly negligent” shooting, when the city maintained a policy that provided inadequate training), rev’d, 471 U.S. 808 (1985) (trial court erred by allowing jury to infer that city was liable because of “a thoroughly nebulous ‘policy’ of ‘inadequate training'”).

21. See Scenic Rivers Ass’n of Oklahoma v. Lynn, 520 F.2d 240 (10th Cir. 1975) (government agencies must conduct an environmental impact study before approving a report required under federal legislation governing interstate land sales), rev’d, 426 U.S. 776 (1976) (National Environmental Policy Act is inapplicable, and government agencies are not required to prepare impact report).

22. Logan Letter, supra, note 1.

23. Id.

24. Id.

25. Id.

26. Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 769 F.2d 1451, 1462 (10th Cir. 1985) (Doyle, J., dissenting).

27. Logan Letter, supra, note 1.

28. “Judge Doyle Will Semi-Retire,” The Denver Post, Dec. 1, 1984.

29. Logan Letter, supra, note 1.

30. Id.

31. Carrigan, supra, note 8 at 1.

32. Logan Letter, supra, note 1.

33. Richard J. Bernick, quoted in Carrigan, supra, note 8 at 1.

34. Logan Letter, supra, note 1.

35. Doyle Memoriam, supra, note 4 at 102-103.

36. Carrigan, supra, note 8 at 2; see also Logan Letter, supra, note 1.

37. James, “William E. Doyle Dies at 75: Judge in Denver Busing Case,” The New York Times, May 4, 1986.

38. Id.

39. Quoted in Carrigan, supra, note 8 at 2.

John L. Kane, Jr., is a U.S. Senior District Judge, District of Colorado; Harry F. Tepker, Jr., is a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma. The information in this article is taken from longer articles in Chapters Three and Ten of The Federal Courts of the Tenth Circuit, published by the Tenth Circuit (James K. Logan, ed., 1992).

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