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The real People’s Court

by Randy Wyrick
Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett listens to oral arguments at a hearing in Kobe Bryant's sexual assualt case at the courthouse in Eagle, Colo., on Thursday, July 31, 2003. (AP Photo/The Denver Post/Hyoung Chang)
AP | THE DENVER POST

County Court is the real People’s Court.

Eagle County Court Judge Fred Gannett learned years ago to shift on the fly, and when the Armani army of attorneys parades before him next week for Kobe Bryant’s preliminary hearing, he’ll shift again.

Sitting in Gannett’s County Court is a little like watching high volume legal aerobics, or maybe an emergency room – the people file in, he handles them deftly, and either sends them home or sends them on to the higher District Court.



“Of all the cases that he’s ever handled, and I’ve handled numerous cases in front of him, I never walked away and said, “Gee, he’s been unfair,'” said local attorney Jim Fahrenholtz. “If you’re wrong, he tells you. If you’re right, he tells you. He’s a real straight player and has a real fair sense of justice.”

Fairness



The woman stood uneasily at a courtroom podium a few days ago, facing up to 10 years in prison for a car accident that left two people dead.

Gannett sentenced her to one year of probation, warned her to be careful driving, and offered his condolences.

“There’s nothing I can say to you that will make that death less powerful to you and to all the people affected by it,” he said, speaking slowly so a Spanish interpreter could keep pace. “It does not appear that putting you in jail for what appears to be a moment of inattention would serve the public.”



Everyone who comes before him, from a landscape laborer to an NBA superstar, is treated the same in his courtroom. Gannett required Bryant to attend his advisement Aug. 6, which lasted seven and a half minutes, even though it meant a private plane trip back from California. Bryant is scheduled to return to court Oct. 9 for his preliminary hearing, at which District Attorney Mark Hurlbert will lay out his case that Bryant should go to trial for allegedly raping a 19-year-old Eagle woman.

“He will take his duty seriously and be fair to both sides,” said former District Attorney Mike Goodbee, who is now with the Colorado State Attorney General’s Office in Denver.

It’s always been like that in Gannett’s courtroom, where people sometimes act as their own attorneys. They come before him – all sizes, colors and backgrounds – for their day in court. He nurses them through procedural briar patches when they get sometimes become flustered in their high-stakes surroundings.

On Tuesday, a man acting as his own attorney is fighting a collection agency and his insurance company over $1,800 worth of medical bills, insisting he was overcharged. It’s what his insurance company told him, he testifies. The man is bright and articulate. Gannett already has spent an hour explaining procedural matters. The man is well prepared but sometimes wanders off the procedural path. Gannett stops him, puts him back on the proper path, and they proceed.

Gannett never acts flustered, never acts frustrated, never acts bored. Even though the collected media are waiting breathlessly for his ruling on a mountain of motions in the Bryant case and his seconds are precious, he does not look at the clock or fidget. It is this man’s day in court, and Gannett is intent to see that justice is done. Bryant’s day is next Thursday, and not before.

In the end Gannett does his job: He hears the evidence, makes a decision and applies the law.

Public, not publicity

Gannett (pronounced GANN-it) often wears sports sandals and golf vests beneath his black robe – an amusing juxtaposition to the Armani army that often comes to his courtroom.

He seems bemused by all the media attention with the Bryant case, but also seems to understand it. His paternal grandparents wrote for New York City daily newspapers, including The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune.

He is at once serious about his work and disarming with questioners.

The alleged victim’s name was mistakenly posted on the state’s Web site for about an hour, and Gannett was asked what he intended to do about it. “Do you mean do I intend to hang myself?” he asked with a smile, taking responsibility for the mistake even though he didn’t make it.

Gannett has earned his daily bread by serving as, among other things, a deputy sheriff, a prosecutor, a judge, a defense attorney and now a judge again.

“This is a very brief event to generate so much energy,” Gannett said before Bryant’s Aug. 6 advisement appearance. Next Thursday’s preliminary hearing is set for a half a day, an eternity in the world of County Court.

While he has been accommodating with the media, he has made it clear that his highest priorities are safety, justice and the alleged victim’s privacy. He set aside seats for reporters for both the Aug. 6 advisement and next week’s preliminary hearing.

On the other hand, he was criticized by some First Amendment experts when he threatened to evict reporters from the courtroom if their organizations violated an order prohibiting publication of the alleged victim’s name or image. He also paid no attention when some media people whined about his order banning photographers from the courthouse and grounds, except in designated areas, and effectively barring reporters from shouting questions at the alleged victim and witnesses.

And he refused to excuse Bryant from the initial hearing, saying he thought Bryant’s appearance was vital.

“It’s not a show. It’s not for this event or for this audience. That’s really how Fred is,” Goodbee said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

The Man in Black

– Eagle County Court Judge Frederick Gannett, 49.

– He earned his law degree at Oregon’s Willamette University in the mid-1980s. He is married but has no children.

– An avid reader and golfer who travels overseas frequently. Gannett helped build his log home in Basalt and sometimes had the black-and-blue fingernails to prove it.

– Gannett was a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy and a defense attorney before being appointed an Eagle County judge in 1987. He served until 1993, and then went into private practice. In 2002, he was reappointed to the Eagle County bench. He also was a municipal judge in Basalt and Vail.

– County judges hear civil cases up to $15,000, and traffic, restraining order, small claims and misdemeanor cases. They also handle felony cases through the preliminary hearing stage.


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