Vail Law: Here’s what’s required to apply for an appoinment to be a court judge (column)
Whenever I have what I think is a good idea for a column, I write it down and add it to the queue. I had scheduled myself to write today’s column on this subject a couple of weeks ago and now find that I was strangely prescient. When I had added this subject to the lineup, the Eagle Court was stable, all judges having served on the bench for at least several years. But Judge Katherine Sullivan beat me to the punch, announcing her retirement the day before I sat down to write.
Whether prescient or just odd coincidence, the timing for this column couldn’t be better.
So now, you may be thinking, “Hey, I want to be a judge. That might be a pretty good gig. The salary is pretty decent and I could wear some pretty slick threads.” You might be considering what a fine figure you would cut in a just-below-the-knee judicial robe and how banging on a gavel all day would be the perfect stress reliever. Plus — and this might just be a big plus, depending on how you may be wired — your bossy side could flourish. “Yeah,” you’re thinking, “Sign me up!”
But before you’re measured for that gown, let’s pause. What, exactly, do you have to do to be a judge?
You’ll need a degree
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Well, first, you have to have a law degree. Drats. That could take years. First there’s the undergrad degree to knock off, then there’s law school and then that pesky bar exam needs to be passed. But say you do. Next you have to live — at least to assume the gavel from retiring Judge Sullivan — in Eagle County. Easy peasy. That one’s a no brainer. Then, after you apply, you’ve got to convince the Judicial Nominating Commission that you’re the right guy or gal to fill the spot.
The 5th Judicial District — comprised of the four central mountain counties of Clear Creek, Summit, Lake and Eagle — has a seven-member committee consisting of three attorneys and four non-attorneys, two Democrats, two Republicans and three independents. Three are from Eagle County, two from Summit and one each from Lake and Clear Creek counties. Commission members will review the applications and then interview the applicants.
If you successfully run the gauntlet of the nominating commission — which will look at such things as your competence, experience and reputation — then a recommendation will be made to the governor, who will choose who will fill the empty seat. So a few gray hairs and a few years in the legal trenches will likely raise your stature.
Although it isn’t necessarily required, the betting money is usually on the governor of the moment filling the seat with a politically like-affiliated nominee. Democrats most times appoint Democrats and Republicans, Republicans.
If the governor puts you on the bench, then the initial appointment is for two years, after which time, you have to stand before the voters for retention. Very seldom is a judge not retained. If you pass that initial auto da fe, then you will stand before the voters every four years for retention.
So say you make the grade; besides looking natty in judicial ermine and knocking about his or her gavel, what exactly does a county court judge do?
What’s the job?
Well, it isn’t all skittles and beer.
First, you have deal with — gulp — criminals, some of them violent. The worst of humanity often parades before a county court judge. Then there is the dizzying volume to deal with. While a busy lawyer is maybe juggling 30 or 40 cases at any one moment, in 2016, there were 12,696 new cases filed in county court the 5th Judicial District. If that doesn’t deserve a “yikes!” then I don’t know what does.
One county court judge in each of the four counties is responsible for traffic, misdemeanor and small claims cases, in addition to civil cases where the matter in dispute is less than $15,000. All felony cases begin in county court, where many are pled down to misdemeanors and disposed of in that forum. The majority of the county court judges’ duties consist of hearing a heavy caseload of traffic violations, infractions and misdemeanors that are directly tied to the visitor population of the district. One part-time magistrate assists with the small claims caseload in Eagle and volunteer mediators provide support to the small claims docket in each of the counties.
Now and again, I act as a mediator in certain disputes and find it rewarding but, having never been a judge, I can only imagine the crush that comes before them.
So, if you are still thinking of throwing your hat in, then get that law school thing behind you, successfully hurdle the bar, get some years of practice behind you, try some cases, built a decent reputation in the legal community and in the community at large, fill out the application for a judgeship, shine before the Nominating Commission, be of the correct political persuasion of the moment, be of proper deportment and calm temperament and viola: Congratulations, Your Honor.
As easy as that.
Heck, even I could be a judge.
To Judge Sullivan, well done. And all of the best wishes in your new endeavors.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.