Judge celebrates 25 years on Vail bench
Buck Allen is a pretty good judge of communities. He should be – he’s been at it long enough.
The town of Vail this week honored Allen for serving 25 years as the town’s municipal court judge. He also wields a gavel in Avon, Eagle and Breckenridge. Allen is the first, and often only, judge most people ever see, presiding over cases ranging from speeding and parking tickets to drunk and disorderly charges and other municipal code violations.
Allen took the bench in Vail in January of 1979, taking over the post from longtime county court judge Andy Gerard. At the time, Allen was working as a deputy prosecutor in the Fifth Judicial District’s Georgetown office with another young prosecutor, Terry Ruckriegle, now the District Court judge in the Kobe Bryant case.
Since Allen had taken a judgeship in the same district he was working in as a prosecutor, the Colorado Supreme Court eventually reviewed his suitability to work both jobs. Since he was trying cases in Georgetown and hearing cases in Vail, the state’s high court found no conflict.
As Allen’s duties on the bench grew from his original four hours a week in Vail, he eventually quit the prosecutor’s office and tried his hand at private practice as well as serving as a judge. “What I found was if I had court on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I’d have a client who had a problem on a Tuesday night,” Allen said. “It just didn’t work out.”
But being a judge was working out. Over the years, his responsibilities in Vail grew and other towns came calling for his services.
With the exception of Eagle, and a short stint in Gypsum, Allen has worked mostly in towns that cater to tourists. Allen said the bulk of his cases in those towns are “late-night-alcohol-good-idea-at-the-time” incidents. Most of those people Allen sees just once. “These are the least serious charges,” he said. “It’s a transient population and most of them are decent people.”
While a lot of the cases are similar, the people are always different, which is one of the continuing challenges of the job. While cases in Vail, Avon and Breckenridge are generally tourists who have had a lapse in judgment, the docket in Eagle is mostly locals. Many of those are middle school-age teens. And there’s a big difference between a 13-year-old in Eagle and a 19-year-old in Vail, he said.
“The challenge is to find some way to make a point where it has meaning to them,” Allen said. “I need to find out what’s important to them, how they think about things.”
In addition to his efforts to keep people out of his courtroom a second time, Allen also tries to make sure the community benefits from the mistakes of others.
For several years Allen gave defendants the option of paying fines with canned food, which was then donated to local charities. In recent years, though, those coming through Allen’s court usually pay a “surcharge” of between $2 and $10 per offense, with the money going to various charities.
The surcharge has helped pay for meals for kids in Vail whose families’ income falls just outside the eligibility line for free or reduced-cost lunches. The surcharge has also bought snowsuits for elementary school students who don’t have adequate winter gear.
The court has also purchased gift cards for senior citizens in need, and in Breckenridge, one bar’s weekly special filled the town court’s coffers.
Car bomb night
A Breckenridge bar named Clancy’s at one time had a weekly special on a drink called a “car bomb,” a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream liquor sunk in a pint of Guinness. The bar had limited restroom facilities, so patrons often relieved themselves out back. Breckenridge police knew this, of course, and would write countless tickets for the violation.
“Car bomb night bought a lot of Christmas presents,” Allen said with a smile.
It’s that sort of community spirit that Vail Mayor Rod Slifer said makes Allen a good municipal judge. Slifer, who has served as mayor twice during the judge’s tenure, has known and liked Allen since he was coming to Vail with his parents.
“He’s not just doling out penalties,” Slifer said. “I think he’s been a lot more humane than you think a judge should be.”
Longtime Vail resident Packy Walker agreed. Walker, who’s no stranger to mischief, has been in Allen’s courtroom “several times.” Over the course of incidents ranging from parking tickets to “temporary leave of my faculties and temporary Alzheimer’s,” Walker said Allen has been “very fair.”
Not everyone thinks that way, of course. People who meet Allen professionally are, by definition, not coming in for a social call. There have been threats over the years.
One incident that stretched over months involved threats from former county resident Richard Janouseck. After his conviction in Allen’s courtroom, Janouseck wrote several threatening letters to the judge. He was eventually caught, tried and convicted for harassing Allen. “When I go to the municipal judges association meetings, I’m told that’s the case that’s used as the guideline for threats against public officials,” Allen said.
In addition to code violations, Vail’s municipal judge has other responsibilities. The main one Allen took on over the years was performing marriages. Until he cut back recently, Allen would perform hundreds of marriages a year, and more than 3,000 while on the job in Vail. Allen married people on the ski slopes, the golf course, and, once, in the gondola while riding to Eagle’s Nest with the groom and unsuspecting bride.
Over the years, Allen has applied for various county and district judge positions as they’ve opened up. Last time an opening came up, though, he didn’t apply. “I decided I’ve got a pretty nice niche here and I probably shouldn’t mess with it,” he said.
“I’ve kind of grown and matured with the community, and having grown up in this place, it’s really fulfilling to be able to contribute to it and evolve with it.”
And, while 25 years is a long time to hold one job, Allen said he has no intention of slowing down any time soon. “I’ve got a passion for skiing and golf and I enjoy the contact with people,” Allen said. “I want to put up Cal Ripken-like numbers as a municipal judge.”