Judge Katharine Sullivan leaving Eagle County for D.C. and Justice Department
EAGLE — Give Katharine Sullivan a wand and tiara and she can change the world. Maybe not all the world, and not all at once, but she’ll change your world.
Eagle County Court Judge Katharine Sullivan is leaving after hearing 45,000 cases through 11 years on the bench.
“This is the most wonderful place I have ever worked,” Sullivan said.
“The most difficult part of this decision is that I am not going to get to come to work here.”
Capital here she comes
On her last day, she graduated seven people from the Eagle County Adult Intensive Supervision Probation, aka problem solving court, one of the two largest groups since she founded the program in October 2009.
Part of her legacy is more than 100 people who graduated those programs. Of those, 70 percent have not been charged with any new offenses.
Sullivan’s father, Eugene Francis Sullivan Jr., was a New York state judge. He was a 6-foot-4 Irish American, and Sullivan wore her father’s robe for the first time on her last day in Eagle County court. Somewhere, a proud father is smiling down from heaven.
Sullivan’s father was a judge, her mother a skilled politician. She’s combining those two skill sets as she heads to Washington, D.C., as the chief deputy director of the Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women.
Cops and criminals
A standing-room-only crowd gathered in an Eagle County Justice Center courtroom Wednesday, Dec. 20, to wish her well. The group was nothing if not diverse. A former district judge sat beside a county jail inmate. Cops and criminals, who have nothing in common, did on Wednesday: They came to say goodbye and were sorry to see her go.
“I am forever grateful for the new lease on life she afforded me,” said Justin Eastling, who graduated from the problem solving court in 2015. “I was an absolute mess before DUI court. If it was not for this program, I would probably be in prison or worse.”
The court staffers gave her, among other things, a tiara and a frame filled with Sullivan’s magic wands.
“To us, she’s magical,” they said.
Sullivan waved the wands when someone in her problem solving courts reported a stretch of good fortune, which always coincided with a stretch of sobriety.
Judge John R. Webb, from Colorado’s Court of Appeals, drove up from Denver for Wednesday’s send-off. Higher court judges never do that, but Webb did, on behalf of the entire court. He lauded Sullivan for being on the right track with her problem solving court.
“When I started on the court of appeals, I was struck by how many cases had their roots in drugs and alcohol,” Webb said.
The regional bar association, some of whom she has gaveled upside the head in her courtroom, gave a $1,000 scholarship for people who need alcohol or drug treatment.
Starting her alternative sentencing court was tougher than running it, 5th Judicial District Chief Judge Mark Thompson said.
“The wheels of justice turn slowly. The wheels of the justice system turn more slowly,” Thompson said.
It grew, as things do when they’re loved and cared for.
No one who graduates Sullivan’s problem solving court has a last name, but they all have a story to tell.
Rob said there are lots of reasons he should not be in Sullivan’s court Wednesday. Life intervened, though, when he crashed his car and wound up before Sullivan on DUI charges.
“My crash wasn’t planned as my last day drinking, but it was,” Rob said.
With a flourish of her pen, Sullivan proclaimed him “off paper,” meaning he was free of the judicial system.
Sullivan smiled and said Tony was “a disaster” when he came to her court. “No offense, but you were,” she said at Wednesday’s graduation.
Tony isn’t any more and is working hard to keep from being one again.
“Your life is better when you’re sober,” Tony said.
There was the kid who works in a local restaurant Sullivan enjoys. The kid appeared before Sullivan on an alcohol charge, which Sullivan said happens regularly in a small town. Then the kid appeared again on another alcohol charge. The second time was the charm, and the kid was in Sullivan’s program. She was among Wednesday’s seven graduates.
“When I say I have a long history with someone, that’s not always a good thing,” Sullivan said
The kid made it through, though, Sullivan proclaimed her, “Off paper!”
Deb was sober from 28 through her early 40s. She made it through problem solving court, and she, too, was declared by Sullivan to be “off paper.”
Sullivan called Trent’s an “interesting journey to drug court.” He managed to pile up enough misdemeanors that his bond was $100,000, so he sat in jail for a couple of months before he “volunteered” for the program. He finished, and on Wednesday, Sullivan proclaimed him “off paper.”
Chris moved to the Vail Valley from New York City to escape the drugs and alcohol that were consuming him. He soon found similar trouble here. He had prepared a speech to move Sullivan to leniency. It didn’t.
Cutting like a laser to the point, Sullivan interrupted him and said, “Unfortunately when you came here, you brought yourself with you.”
Chris said he was “presented with the gift of desperation.” He finished the program and is three years sober.
Better all the time
After 45,000 cases over 11 years, Sullivan has ruffled some feathers. Getting smacked with a gavel will do that to you, even if you deserve it. The Colorado court system asks for feedback about its judges, and Sullivan received a few grouchy-grams.
She sat down with Chief Judge Thompson to ask what she might change, what she might do better, and then did it, Thompson said.
“You are a compliment to judges everywhere,” Thompson said to Wednesday’s gathering.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.