Chief judge reflects on tough decisions
Summit County correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado – Flanked by papers and files stacked a foot high across the tables and desk of his chambers, Chief District Judge W. Terry Ruckriegle paused to muse on difficult decisions along his 26 years on the bench.
He mentioned the sexual assault case against NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, cases with no legal precedent, and cases of homicide and child-abuse deaths.
“The difficulty of decision-making often has emotion,” said Ruckriegle, who will be 63 when he retires Aug. 31.
But he said there are “very few decisions” on which he’s had second thoughts, and he recalled taking a long time with some of the tougher ones.
Attorneys who’ve spent any amount of time in Ruckriegle’s court are quick to mention his high standards and intolerance for under-prepared counsel.
“Ruckriegle has flashes of intemperance, which you wanted to avoid,” former District Attorney Pete Michaelson said. “It just made you want to be better prepared and work harder at the job of lawyering.”
He said that while some judges “allow any kind of slop to pass for good lawyering,” Ruckriegle was always prepared, and he expected his attorneys to be ready as well.
“He enforces with a firm hand,” said Jeff Huntley, attorney for Summit County Government. “No Lance Ito here.”
Ruckriegle said he prefers to keep the court “structured and organized” so that during trial “everything moves along as smoothly as possible.”
While it’s not unusual for him to spend two or three hours working on cases after going home, Ruckriegle has maintained commitments to several prestigious organizations.
A committee chair on the American Bar Association House of Delegates’ judicial division, he’s been working on a set of updated trial court standards to be used across the country. Since the Bryant case, he’s given lectures from Alaska to Washington D.C. on media in the courts. Ruckriegle’s also committed to many committees and boards in Colorado.
The chief district judge’s work can be quite demanding as decisions are made that run the gamut of hot-button social issues – civil, criminal, probate and juvenile.
“There are times when it feels overwhelming, not just in high profile but in an ordinary case, when you still make decisions that impact peoples’ lives regardless … ” he said. “That’s challenging, and sometimes it causes you to truly, literally be sleepless.”
He said there are times he’s walked out of the courthouse thinking “everything in the world is a potential lawsuit.”
“But it’s an incredibly rich and rewarding opportunity for me to be able to” serve the public and learn about the world, he said.
In the course of his career, Ruckriegle has had to become versed on construction issues – from resort developments to golf courses and greens – as well as all sorts of criminal matters.
During the Bryant case, Ruckriegle said he was also handling three major construction cases that each had between 20 and 30 parties involved.
“One of the things a district judge in a rural resort area is you will be having several hundred cases going at a time,” he said, adding that he receives about 10 to 40 electronic filings each day.
Ruckriegle’s work on the bench ends in less than two months, but some of his rulings will continue in perpetuity across the country.
Huntley said decisions the judge made on local-government issues have been important to Colorado, and a case regarding the local sanitation district has been “cited often in both state and national literature about impact fees and how they work.”
Breckenridge town attorney Tim Berry said he admires Ruckriegle’s work.
“I really respect Judge Ruckriegle a lot, and I think the Fifth Judicial District is going to miss him greatly when he retires,” he said, adding that “it’s a very difficult job” to preside over district court.
The controversial Kobe Bryant case drew attention to rape shield laws – protecting identities of alleged sexual assault victims – across the United States.
The Colorado court system mistakenly released the name of the woman in the Bryant case through electronic records despite Ruckriegle’s order for attorneys to protect her identity.
He said the case also brought “several difficult decisions” on seizure of some evidence and statements.
“At that time (2003-04), there were hardly any cases out there that dealt with texting and cell phone records,” Ruckriegle said. “That was the generation that brought that information technology to light in the courtroom.”
The case was dismissed after 14 months of hearings and litigation when the victim informed the prosecution she was unwilling to testify. It was one day before jury selection was to occur.
“I was extremely disappointed in the outcome,” Ruckriegle said. “We were absolutely ready to go to trial.”
Potential jurors had been extensively screened through questionnaires, and Ruckriegle said 174 prospective jurors were screened. He said he felt the “process should have been followed through” and it was a case of “justice abandoned.”
Ruckriegle has presided over more than a half-dozen cases that “ended up being life sentences,” one of which had been prosecuted as a death penalty.
Such sentences tend to be associated with first-degree murder cases already carrying life in prison on conviction.
“Sentences at any level are difficult, because you’re really trying to look at that person and what (he or she) actually did,” he said, adding that criminal history and the convict’s attempts to address the issues that led to the charges are factors in the decision.
Ruckriegle said it’s most important to him “to have an exchange, a communication with that person for me to be able to evaluate how they view the situation that they’re in, and whether there’s any remorse if that’s appropriate for the case.”
He said he’s had people “literally fall to the floor” when brought before the court for sentencing.
“Some people break down,” Ruckriegle said. “But what’s always surprising to me is that some people, when I say, ‘Do you have anything to say to the court,’ they will say, ‘No, I don’t have anything to say.’
“That’s surprising to me every time, because I expect that somebody would have something to say about what happened and about what brought them there to be sentenced.”
In a small mountain community, the judge will inevitably bump into people who’ve been through the legal system at the recreation center, grocery store or elsewhere.
“To be perfectly honest, I would say most of those are positive exchanges that I have,” he said. “But once in a while, it’s unpleasant to see somebody that you’ve made decisions (on), including sending them to incarceration.”
Ruckriegle said it’s an inevitable part of the job, and earlier in his judgeship he would pick up hitchhikers who’d been defendants while driving to Clear Creek County.
He may be retiring from work as a full-time district judge, but Ruckriegle said he intends to continue his work with legal organizations and lecturing, and he would like to serve part-time engaged in the courts through the senior judge program.
He’s also considering mediation and arbitration, or traveling abroad to help developing countries develop court procedures.
While in law school at Indiana University School of Law at Indianapolis in the early 1970s, he traveled to southern Iran to teach economics and political science.
“It was an incredibly rewarding experience,” he said, adding that his time there has “been something I’ve carried with me throughout my career to always sort of reflect on – things we do in our legal system aren’t always perfect,” but there is always work afoot to improve it.
Ruckriegle also anticipates spending more time with his wife, who is a retired teacher from Summit County School District. His three daughters, aged 26, 23 and 21, are all aspiring toward success.
Ruckriegle intends to do more fishing, skiing, biking and hiking with his extra free time. He likes to hunt elk, but he doesn’t keep any trophies – rather, he prefers to take cows for the meat.
All those stacks of paper in his chambers will soon be cleared out as Gov. Ritter selects Ruckriegle’s successor. Soon, a new face will preside over the high-profile cases that pass through the courthouse in Breckenridge and in the other counties of the Fifth Judicial District (Eagle, Lake and Clear Creek).
Reflecting further on his decisions, Ruckriegle said things would get heated on occasion.
“There are times I wish I would have disengaged more, because it isn’t productive to the ultimate process,” he said. “But the bottom line is: While it’s an incredible system of justice, there are people, emotions and difficult issues for parties involved in court …
“You have to make a decision, one way or the other.”
SDN reporter Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.