Don Toussaint, JD'09, Sworn in as Arapahoe County Court Judge
From troubled teen to Arapahoe County Magistrate in Colorado, the Honorable Don Toussaint’s life and career has taken many turns; however, no matter where his journey has taken him, it has always revolved around two tenets: community and justice.
Toussaint, JD’09, a first-generation Haitian American, was sworn in on May 26, 2017 to serve as District Court Magistrate for the Eighteenth Judicial District. Here he rules by the philosophy “seek justice not retribution.” He is known to make rulings by both the law and what would best help individuals get back on track.
His drive, determination and education from Denver Law have gotten him where he is today, though he is the first to admit his path was a little rocky when he was younger … which may have been just the catalyst that launched him into his legal career.
The Path to Justice
Hailing from New Jersey, his family moved to Virginia when he was 15 and then to Colorado the following year. He went to three different high schools through the moves, but he says he always stayed active in his community to try to stay out of trouble.
“Anything to keep me off the streets,” he relates. However, he found himself in some hot water during his junior year at Overland High School, in Aurora, Colo., which lead him to his first taste of the law.
His principal at the time, John Buckner, former state representative of Colorado, gave Toussaint a chance to turn things around by participating in the City of Aurora Teen Court program. He did, and served for two years, winning three Metropolitan Mayors and Commissioners Awards for Denver, Aurora and Arapahoe County. It was a foreshadowing of his life to come.
However, after high school, Toussaint moved back to New Jersey, where he found himself without prospects or goals. “I was basically homeless and couch surfing for three or four months,” he relates, adding he’d spend nights in a friend’s attic and days in an area park.
But he knew it wasn’t the life he wanted.
“At that time, I realized I couldn’t do this forever.” So, he picked up The Princeton Review at a local library and began his college search in the “A”s. The first school that would accept him was Alabama State University, where he was required to meet a specific grade point average to remain as a student. It was where Toussaint really started to turn things around.
“I ended up getting on the dean’s list for the first time in my life.” he relates, adding he joined the ROTC for discipline, a trait that has served him through his career.
Taking the Next Step
After returning to Colorado, Toussaint completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado at Denver and then earned a Master’s Degree from Regis University. While working as a registered representative and project manager for Great-West Retirement Services, Toussaint was encouraged to consider law school to advance his career.
To say that he was driven to get his legal education is an understatement. Because he had a full-time career and a family, he chose to attend Denver Law’s highly ranked part-time program, the only one of its kind in the Rocky Mountain region. As many of the school’s part-time program students do, he juggled his responsibilities and night classes for four years.
“I’d take my kids to Parker, go downtown to work, go back to law school and stay there until 11 p.m. studying,” he relates. The last two years of school, he started doing summer clerkships, something highly encouraged at Denver Law, through which he got his first job as a contract corporate attorney.
It wasn’t quite as easy to move forward from there, but through networking, Toussaint found work when many other new attorneys struggled.
“I graduated in 2009 when the bottom fell out of legal jobs. At the time, firms were looking for attorneys with five-plus years of experience,” he adds. However, through the help of a mentor he was able to break into a firm even with his brief amount of legal experience, where he spent a majority of his time writing and researching.
But Toussaint’s true passion was trial, and when he saw an opening for the position of Assistant City Attorney for Aurora, he jumped at the chance. It turns out he was the right attorney for the job.
“It enticed me for a couple of reasons,” he says. “I wanted to contribute to the City of Aurora. It offered trial experience, and it gave me an opportunity to give back and give representation.”
During his tenure, he argued in 75 jury trials, as well as argued and won six appeals. Judges took notice of his track record and urged him to get behind the bench. While he says he was initially hesitant, he was already chairing the 18th Judicial Performance Commission where he had a chance to really study judges. So, he took the leap.
Toussaint started as District Court Magistrate for the Eighteenth Judicial District in June of 2017.
Compassionate, Inclusive Justice
“The biggest problem I see is people not being able to afford legal representation. I take my time with these individuals. I explain the legal process, make them comfortable, and make sure they know their rights,” he said.
Diversity is also an issue close to Toussaint’s heart. Often times what people see when they go to court is not representative of their own background. He adds that the City of Aurora alone has a population that speaks 120 different languages.
“When they come to court it’s important that they see people that reflect them,” he says, adding this goes across all lines, including race, sexual orientation, culture and much more. This is also why he makes his time available to speak at civic events, as well as speak with students from all walks of life about inclusivity and diversity, encouraging them to get involved in the legal system.
For students and those that are just starting out in their career, Toussaint has some valuable advice. Network from day one and build your own brand with integrity and an upstanding reputation.
“The legal community is small and everyone knows everyone.”
This philosophy has served him well in his own life. “I’m loving being behind the bench,” Toussaint says, adding that his ultimate goal is to serve on the Court of Appeals. As he looks back on his early legal experience in Teen Court to his current position, he relates, “I’ve come full circle.”
But he doesn’t forget the community he came from and those that have supported him on his path.
“I owe DU a lot. The law school took a risk admitting me,” particularly mentioning Professors Catherine Smith, Scott Johns, Thomas Russel and Susannah Pollvogt who really changed the course of his career in law school, as well as mentor Jennifer Jaskolka.
Toussaint has also taken his dedication to community and justice international with a project that is close to his heart. The Haitian earthquake in 2010 affected tens of thousands of families, and the false and negative information he was hearing on TV regarding the tragedy struck a chord.
“I decided to do a project to try to tell the Haitian story,” he says. He started his own studio and is now working on a book and film, The Least of Us: Inequality and the Underdevelopment of Haiti, to explore the infrastructure of the country and understand why Haiti is in the situation that it is in.
Toussaint and a team have traveled to Haiti to get first-hand information, interviews and more. He is hoping to release both pieces in 2018. You can see more details of the project at www.myefilm.com.
This project, just like his duties to his community and behind the bench, he says, are “… a labor of love.”