Local courts to get an additional judge | VailDaily.com

Local courts to get an additional judge

EAGLE, Colorado – Judges in the Fifth Judicial District carry Colorado’s heaviest caseload, but should get some help this summer.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed HB 1035 adding another district judge to Colorado’s Fifth Judicial District: Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties.

Lawmakers passed the measure 60-2 in Colorado’s House of Representatives, and unanimously in the Senate.

State legislators Rep. Millie Hamner and Sen. Gail Schwartz carried the bill.

“It’s a perfect example of governments working together to get something done,” said District Court Judge Tom Moorhead, chief judge for the Fifth Judicial District.

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Last summer Colorado’s state court administrator’s office determined that judges in the Fifth Judicial District have the highest caseload of any District Court in the state. Sherry Stwalley, Patricia Brodhead and Steve Vasconcellos did the analysis and decided to take the matter to the Legislature as a budget request.

They found that the Fifth Judicial District has the lowest district court judge staffing level in Colorado, just under 70 percent of full staffing.

In Eagle County, the district court’s caseload is up 98 percent since 2003, due mostly to civil cases, and not including tax liens and foreclosures, according to the state judicial branch. Foreclosures and tax lien cases are up 332 percent in the Fifth Judicial District over the past 10 years, they found.

The Fifth Judicial District last received a new district judgeship in 2005. Since then, the caseload in the Fifth Judicial District has grown by 71 percent.

Currently, there are two District Judges assigned to Eagle County, Moorhead and District Court Judge Fred Gannett. Summit County has two judges and Clear Creek County has one. Judges travel to Lake County when necessary.

Because of the filing growth in Eagle, judges from Summit and Clear Creek often travel to Eagle to help with the overflow of cases filed there, said Jon Sarche, state court spokesman.

If funded, the district will place another judge in Eagle County to help offset this workload, and allow the other judges to focus their time on Summit, Clear Creek and Lake counties, which have also experienced workload increases.

How it works

HB 1035 breezed through the Legislature, and had the support of every board of county commissioners in the four-county Fifth Judicial District. Eagle County’s board of county commissioners passes a resolution supporting the bill.

“We received incredible support from the boards of county commissioners,” Moorhead said.

To be a judge, you need a minimum of five years of law practice in Colorado and be a resident of the Fifth Judicial District, Sarche said.

A selection committee will screen applicants and do interviews, then send three names to Gov. Hickenlooper for the final decision. The governor has 15 days to make that decision, and the appointee has to come from those three names, Sarche said.

Moorhead said he hopes to have the new judge on the bench by in the Eagle County Justice Center by July 1.

About a month before that date, the Colorado State Judicial Branch will announce the new judgeship and start collecting applications, said Jon Sarche, state court spokesman.

The applications go to the Fifth Judicial District nominating commission, a seven-member panel comprised of four non-attorneys and three attorneys. Their political affiliations have to be divided so neither party has more than a one-vote majority, Sarche said. The Fifth’s nominating commission is comprised of two Republicans, three Democrats and two politically unaffiliated members.

That panel will select the three finalists to send to the governor.

District court judges serve a six-year term. The new judge will go through a two-year probation period, then voters will decide whether the new judge should be retained.

District Courts handle general jurisdiction including criminal, civil, domestic relations, juvenile, probate, mental health, and water cases.

Across Colorado, District Court filings have grown 70.47 percent in 10 years.

A Colorado District Court judge earns $128,598 a year.

The new judge in the Fifth Judicial District is one of two Colorado’s Judicial Department requested. The other is for the Ninth Judicial District: Garfield, Pitkin, and Rio Blanco counties. The Ninth Judicial District has the second lowest district court judge staffing level in Colorado, at approximately 73 percent of full staffing, according to data from the state judicial branch.

Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs said the Fifth Judicial District’s population in 2010 was approximately 96,589, an 8 percent increase since 2005. Population is projected to grow approximately 2 percent per year for the next 15 years.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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