After 26 years, Judge Hart has seen it all
EAGLE – A lot has changed since Richard Hart accepted his job.In 1980, the year Hart was appointed a district court judge, Leadville was the biggest town in the state judicial district that includes Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties, and the Climax Mine was one of the biggest employers. Beaver Creek was still a year away from opening.Hart will retire at the end of March, exactly 26 years after Gov. Richard Lamm appointed him to the job.”I think the anniversary is a good time to leave,” Hart said. “A generation is probably a good time to serve.”Now it’s time to let someone else take the job.”My wife and kids want me to spend more time with them,” he said. And, as befits a man who’s been around for a while, there’s a grandchild he’d like to know better.Time with family has been a precious commodity over the years.”He spent a lot of Sundays in the office,” said former District Attorney Mike Goodbee. “As a young prosecutor, I spent a lot of Sundays in the office, because it’s quiet. It was way more often the case that he was there.”That time in a quiet courthouse reflects Hart’s dedication to the job, Goodbee said.”He’s the kind of judge who earnestly struggles to do the right thing,” he said. “That can be a rare character trait in a judge.”Starting out
Hart has always had to commute to a courthouse somewhere. A Vail resident since 1971, he first heard cases almost exclusively in Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties. When another judge was hired for the district, Hart moved his office to Eagle, and has been there ever since.Over the years, he’s heard cases that have established precedents in state law, has seen rough customers and scared children. That’s what’s kept him interested in the job.”There’s just a huge variety of human interest,” Hart said. “Even piddly little things have great human interest.”Even the piddly cases have drawn Hart’s full attention, though. Reading some of his written opinions, it’s obvious he tries to think cases through as well as he can.”He’s not afraid to uphold the law, no matter who wins,” said Bruce Carey, a local attorney who has argued cases in Hart’s courtrooms for 16 years.”He’s willing to go against the prosecution in cases, even though it might look like he’s soft on crime.”As a prosecutor, Goodbee might win or lose cases in Hart’s court, but that hasn’t lessened his respect for the judge.”I loved practicing law in front of Judge Hart,” Goodbee said. “He’s one of the people who take the obligation of being a public servant very seriously.”But not so seriously there’s no time for fun. Hart was a willing accomplice the day Goodbee took a few minutes of the court’s time to ask his girlfriend, Michelle – then Hart’s court clerk – to marry him.Tough workHart has had some rough customers come through his courtroom. But, he said, he’s rarely been scared.
Things got a little ugly once when the jury pools for two cases ended up in the same courtroom. One person called for jury duty got upset and started threatening people.Other than that, though, “I haven’t even pounded the gavel very much,” he said.There can still be plenty of drama. And Hart is clearly disappointed when people involved in family law cases lose perspective.”It’s the stuff where people are asserting their rights when they ought to be taking care of their kids,” he said.And cases that draw a lot of media attention aren’t his favorites, either.Hart originally drew the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case. Early in that case Judge Terry Ruckriegle, the chief judge of the district, took the case himself.”You take what you get,” Hart said. “But if somebody else wanted that one, that’s fine with me.”Even cases like the Russell Thompson case, in which Thompson was accused, and eventually convicted, of beating his roommate to death, “can be a disaster at every turn,” he said.And, in every human endeavor, mistakes are inevitable.”You have to forget about it,” he said. “Second-guessing is counter-productive. I want to worry about today.”You do your best and hope you’re doing something useful for the community.”
Loose endsWith his last day at work set, Hart isn’t sure what retirement will hold.If he’s appointed to a senior judge’s job, he’ll probably ride herd on a few cases that started in his courtroom. If not, his successor will get them.”I don’t have any real plans,” he said. While Hart may not have any firm plans, Carey hopes he can spend some of the judge’s free time with him. It’s inappropriate for attorneys and active judges to pal around, so Carey is looking forward to the spring.”I intend to hang out with Judge Hart after he’s off the bench because of our shared love of old sports cars,” Carey said.Vail Daily reporter Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ex. 14624 or at firstname.lastname@example.orgVail, Colorado