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ASU Law establishes endowment for trailblazing black judge

Cecil Patterson, ASU Law Class of '71, was first black appeals court judge in Arizona

Man in living room

February 24, 2017

Cecil Patterson is used to being a trailblazer: He was the first black judge appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, the first black lawyer in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the state’s first black appeals court judge.

What the 1971 ASU Law grad isn’t used to is tooting his own horn. So he’s got a bit of a learning curve ahead.

“There are a lot of things that a judge can’t do, like raise funds, act politically, make speeches on others’ behalf, things of that nature,” said Patterson, who retired in 2011. “This is going to be a new endeavor for me.”

Patterson is raising money for an endowment established in his name as part of Campaign ASU 2020, a comprehensive effort to raise at least $1.5 billion to accelerate the university’s mission. If he raises $500,000, it will establish a scholarship for outstanding minority law students.

The Honorable Cecil B. Patterson Scholarship Endowment will be announced at a celebration and scholarship reception Tuesday, Feb. 28, at the Beus Center for Law & Society in downtown Phoenix, home of Arizona State University's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

The event, which runs from 5 to 7 p.m., is free and open to the public. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP to

“His passion for community engagement is legendary; he once stated that his greatest reward comes from mentoring young lawyers to be the next generation of leaders in the bar,” said Douglas Sylvester, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He called Patterson a true leader and advocate and added “we are honored to establish this scholarship in his name.”

Organizers want the first Patterson scholarship to be awarded in fall 2017 and every year thereafter. 

In addition to the scholarship, Patterson will be recognized with a room named after him in the Beus Center. The room will serve as a meeting place for students, faculty and visitors and will spark conversations about Patterson’s career.

The scholarship and room dedication is an opportunity for ASU Law to “make a statement,” said Peter Kiewit Foundation Professor of Law Myles Lynk. 

“It’s a way to mark Cecil’s passage through the law school, and his impact on the community,” Lynk said. “He’s always been such a positive force for good, always wanting to bring everybody up. He’s continually a man in motion.”

The 76-year-old’s first thoughts of becoming a lawyer date back to his childhood in Newport News, Virginia.

“My dad used to sit and talk about having wanted to go to law school at the table when we’d eat breakfast or dinner,” Patterson said. “He didn’t have the money.”

Patterson graduated from Hampton University in 1963, majoring in history, but couldn’t afford law school. He joined the Air Force instead.

His five-year military stint involved tracking and intercepting Soviet warplanes. His final assignment was Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, where he established his family and planted new roots.

People posing for picture

Cecil Patterson was the only African-American in his law class when he enrolled at ASU in the fall of 1968.

Using the G.I. Bill, Patterson could finally attend law school. He enrolled at ASU in 1968 and graduated three years later. At the time, he was one of only a handful of black lawyers in the state.

Patterson discovered there were inequities in poverty, housing, youth programs and the criminal justice system for people of all color in Maricopa County. He particularly disliked seeing young people go to jail.

“I used to say to kids the system is like a meat grinder and will take a filet mignon and turn it into a hamburger,” said Patterson, who served as a presiding judge of the Maricopa County Criminal Department as well as a juvenile court judge.

Patterson saw prevention as a solution, and he maintained a presence on various community boards that could help, including the YMCA, United Way, Samaritan Health Services and the Red Cross.

“He brought hope, skill and knowledge to the board in hopes that things could be better for family and children,” said Nadine Basha, who served with Patterson on an early childhood initiative in Chandler from 2007 to 2013. “Because of his mind, he always asked the best questions and helped us to focus. Having his perspective was important.”

Education, family values, childhood development and afterschool programs, he could publicly advocate for. Other causes, like promoting minorities within the legal system, he had to approach strategically.

“I was a quiet advocate publicly, but visible and pushy within the organization,” Patterson said. “I found myself a community leader because of my position and role within the African-American community.”

In that role he served the community well, said the Rev. Warren Stewart, pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, who has known Patterson for several decades.

“I’ve known judges before, and most live in this silo where it’s hard to interact with them but that’s never been the case with Cecil,” Stewart said. He added that Patterson was reachable, never stopped relating to people and never “stopped advancing the community forward.”

Patterson did so by encouraging bailiffs, court clerks and government workers of all ethnicities to study law, take the bar exam and become lawyers and judges.

“The horizon is far higher and much further than what you can see,” Patterson said. “You just got to get out there and look for it.”

Reaching that horizon almost describes Patterson’s reaction to the endowment that will bear his name in perpetuity.  

“I’m delighted and overjoyed,” Patterson said. “It is something beyond words for me, which is very rare by the way.”  

Top photo: ASU Law Class of '71 alumnus Cecil Patterson (shown in his Chandler home on Feb. 14) was the first black judge appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, the first black lawyer in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the state’s first black appeals court judge. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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