EAGLE COUNTY — When Tom Moorhead told Colorado’s state judicial branch that he was retiring as a District Court judge, he used the word “resigned.” His phone and email immediately lit up with people asking, “What happened? Are you OK?”
Never better, was his answer.
Moorhead says he’s graduating, like he has before and likely will again. He retired as chief District Court judge and will work with a Front Range mediation firm comprised of retired judges.
His goal, he says with a grin, is to do as many of his mediation cases as possible on Saturdays, so he can ski Mondays when the resorts are the least crowded.
When he gets tired of the cold he’ll migrate to warmer climes, like those featured in several copies of Surfer magazine to which he subscribes and are on a table just outside his office. They’re his, and he’s been to several of those places. He’ll visit several more.
And he’s training for a West Coast marathon in a couple of weeks.
Moorhead has always had a clear fix on where he lives.
Take the time he was Vail’s town attorney and the Category III (Blue Sky Basin) agreement was being hammered out.
One clear Colorado day, folks from Vail Resorts, the U.S. Forest Service and the town loaded into the Lionshead gondola and headed up the mountain. As they rode, they hammered out the document’s final details. When they reached the top, they folded the paperwork, secured it in their pockets and took a run. When they reached the bottom, they did it again, and kept doing it until they ran out of both daylight and details.
It was the first time a community, a ski company and the Forest Service hammered out an agreement together.
“I’m grateful for my entire career. Things followed one another in a logical progression,” Moorhead said.
Moorhead spent his career making decisions but says he doesn’t look back and doesn’t second guess.
“You make decisions based on the evidence, and you move on to the next case,” he said.
Moorhead cut his legal teeth in Cincinnati, first as a prosecutor for 11 years and then five years in private practice handling complex civil cases. He cut those teeth quickly.
He was a young prosecutor about a year and a half in when he flew solo in his first murder trial against an experienced defense attorney who’d won 13 straight trials. As a civil attorney, one of his first clients was a hospital where a nurse admitted killing 27 people under her care.
He had his eye on a judgeship in Cincinnati but discovered judicial elections in that town are partisan political campaigns. Moorhead was having none of that, pointing out the obvious political pitfalls that open up when a bailiff collects a $5,000 campaign contribution, but the judge is supposed to disregard all that when the donor’s case comes up.
In Colorado, judges are selected on a merit system, which Moorhead calls “the gold medal of judicial selection.”
He moved to Colorado in October 1992 and picked Eagle County because it was in the middle of the state. He wasn’t licensed to practice law in the state, so finding a job turned out to be a bit problematic.
He finally landed his license on St. Patrick’s Day 1993, about the time Larry Eskwith resigned as Vail’s town attorney.
“When he resigned I knew that was the reason I was here,” Moorhead said.
Vail, though, wasn’t so sure they wanted a litigator as their town attorney. Moorhead explained that a litigator was best suited to help the town avoid litigation, and the job was his.
He stuck around Vail for a while, and then migrated to a position as the Eagle County attorney, then to the District Court bench.
When he got the job, he sat down with former judge Richard Hart to get a fix on what he’d signed on for.
“In this community people respect you for what you do,” Hart answered.
The biggest challenge and the best things are the same, Moorhead said.
“You are given the opportunity to make decisions that affect people’s lives, and you’re doing it by the rule of law,” he said.
He remembers the first time he walked through his courtroom door as a judge and 50 people stood.
“There’s this weird rush that reflects the responsibility,” Moorhead said. “My sense of that responsibility came from years as a litigator.”
Working the job and the room
It’s inaccurate and unfair to assert that because a courtroom is empty, no one is doing anything.
“The real work takes place in chambers. The only thing that happens in the courtroom is presentation of evidence,” Moorhead said.
Those courtrooms are filled with bad people on their best day and good people on their worst day. Moorhead treats them all the same.
“They made a mistake, maybe several, but they still have to be treated with respect,” Moorhead said.
Judges have softened their rhetoric during the past several years, and Moorhead never lectured those who appeared before him.
“Rather than admonishing and penalizing, judges now try to be encouraging,” Moorhead said. “When you have 40 or 50 people in the room and you confront someone, it puts everyone else on edge as well.”
Criminal dockets in larger areas have more violent crime. In Colorado’s 5th Judicial District — Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties — and its resort towns, it’s more about alcohol and drugs. Toward that end, he helped launch AISP, the drug and alcohol alternative court. Once a week people in the program come see the judge to talk about how their lives are going, and mostly they’re going much better.
Then there are the juvenile cases. Kids stand in a courtroom, usually for the first time, and they’re almost always panic stricken. Moorhead and the other judges try to put them at ease, but the purpose is clear.
He smiles softly at the kids and says, “Up to now your parents make decisions for you because they love you. When I start making decisions for you, love will not be part of the equation. Community safety will.”
His biggest professional disappointment led to his most important professional lesson.
Judges receive case assignments on a rotating basis, and Moorhead was supposed to get the next criminal case when Kobe Bryant rolled into town. Moorhead said a case like that takes the cooperation of everyone in a small courthouse such as Eagle County’s, and they were ready to go.
He was ready, but the Bryant case was not to be his.
When Bryant was bound over for trial, judge Terry Ruckriegle, chief judge at the time, took the case.
“It became a challenge to get past that. It was difficult personally,” Moorhead said.
The lesson, though, was more valuable than the case.
“Not hearing that case made me a better judge. As a District Court judge, it’s not the sensational case that matters. It’s showing up every day and handling those seemingly meaningless cases to the best of your ability,” Moorhead said. “Doing your best every day for the cases before you, that’s what’s important.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vail daily.com.
As a District Court judge, it’s not the sensational case that matters. It’s showing up every day and handling those seemingly meaningless cases to the best of your ability.
Retired District Court judge