Paul Dunkelman stepped into the role of chief judge as an interim position after former Chief Judge Mark Thompson was placed on administrative leave in October. Now that Dunkelman has officially been named to the position for the 5th Judicial District he’s ready to continue leading the district in providing equitable access to justice so community members have confidence in their legal system.
Dunkelman got his start in the legal field when he attended Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, where he earned a bachelor’s in economics and political science. He officially made the jump to Colorado when he earned his Juris Doctor from Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver in 1993.
Shortly thereafter, Dunkelman moved to Frisco where he opened a practice with two other attorneys, Ron and Judy Carlson. During this time, the trio practiced criminal law, domestic relations and civil law. The firm, named Carlson, Carlson & Dunkelman, LLC, was where Dunkelman said he first experienced the true reward of working in this field.
“I (think) most of the cases we handle are good people going through the worst time in their lives, and when you help them through that, at the end of the that, (whether) they say thank you, don’t say thank you, that’s not the issue, but they sort of appreciate and understand that you helped them through the most difficult time in their life,” he said.
Dunkelman said this feedback, whether positive of negative, is something that sticks with him long into the future. One such comment occurred after he had been appointed district court judge in 2013. Dunkelman said shortly after being appointed as a judge, he was overseeing a divorce case that was emotional and stressful to each party.
“I thought I’d explained the process well to them, I thought they understood the process … After I made my ruling, the wife asked me when she got her chance to explain her side of the story,” Dunkelman said. “It didn’t affect the ruling, the issues were limited, but it affected her confidence in my decision that she didn’t think she was heard, and it was upsetting to me and really eye opening to me.”
There are others Dunkelman said he’s had the chance to learn from, including his former partners, Ron and Judy Carlson; former District Court Judge David Lass; and Summit County Court Judge Edward Casias.
Michael Pisciotta, court executive for the 5th Judicial District, has worked with Dunkelman for seven years. Pisciotta noted one example of Dunkelman’s character from his time as a district court judge. During the pandemic, many courts put their dockets on hold, but there was one high-profile murder case Dunkelman oversaw where he took extra measures and precautions so the trial could move forward safely and efficiently. For this work, Dunkelman was selected the Colorado Judicial Institute’s district court judge of the year in 2021.
“In my seven years, we hadn’t had a 5th District judge that had received that type of an award and it was very well deserved because he was courageous enough to move forward and smart enough and wise enough to implement as many precautions as we could to protect the public,” Pisciotta said.
Though Dunkelman stepped into the role of chief judge at a difficult time for the court, he said the role of chief judge was already on his radar and something he was interested in pursuing. As chief judge, he is still responsible for a full docket, but now his role is to oversee the administration of the 5th Judicial District, which serves Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties. This means overseeing personnel and the budget, but it also means meeting with stakeholders and being accessible to the community.
With a few months under his belt already, Dunkelman said he’s not interested in making any major changes immediately. Instead, he’s interested in focusing on ways the court system can better provide access to needed services.
“I want to continue to be innovative in how we provide access to justice to all parties, regardless of whether you can afford an attorney, not afford an attorney, whatever your role is and whatever your issue is that we provide a means to access the court system,” Dunkelman said.