Justice Mike Bender Congratulates Judicial Excellence Awards Honoree Magistrate Matthew Zehe
Coloradans Put Politics Aside to Celebrate Excellence and Fairness in our Courts
Five hundred Coloradans of all political persuasions gathered at the History Colorado Center Oct. 17 to celebrate 53 years of fair and impartial state courts at the Colorado Judicial Institute’s 17th annual Judicial Excellence awards.
The Colorado Judicial Institute (CJI) is a private, nonpartisan citizen organization dedicated to preserving fair and impartial courts in Colorado while fostering excellence in the state’s judiciary and furthering public understanding of the legal system. This year, it honored El Paso County 4th Judicial District Judge Timothy J. Schutz, Denver County Court Judge Olympia Z. Fay and Larimer County’s 8th Judicial District Magistrate Matthew R. Zehe for outstanding performance and leadership on the bench.
CJI also honored two Colorado U.S. District Judges for their outstanding service on the federal bench in this state: Judge Marcia S. Krieger and the late Judge Wiley Daniel.
The spirit of the evening and the attitudes of the honored jurists themselves were exemplified by a quote from literary icon Maya Angelou recounted by Judge Fay: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
With that rule in mind, Fay said, she strove to ensure that citizens in her court room not only received procedural fairness but explanations of often complex or arcane legal procedures.
“I’ve learned a judge needs emotional intelligence and heart as well as the legal acumen to serve,” Judge Fay said.
Judge Schutz, who has been active in a wide array of activities to increase citizen access to the court system court as well as such nonlegal groups like Habitat for Humanity, observed that a rule of parenting also applies to a courtroom: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
He said also tries to remember that, “While the attributes of God are equal, mercy is more brilliant and splendid than justice.”
Magistrate Zehe said he tries to apply lessons learned from some of his own family’s history of alcoholism as he presides over El Paso County’s DUI Recovery Court, which he started in 2008.
“Problem-solving courts can be a positive and compassionate force,” the magistrate said, noting that he works closely with community support groups. He closed with a favorite saying: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next-best time is now.”
While CJI’s prime focus is on state courts, it issued special awards this year to two federal jurists who helped pioneer efforts to diversify and revitalize the legal climate in Colorado.
Judge Krieger was named to the U.S. District Court in Colorado in 2001, only the second woman named to that body. She was the first female to serve as chief judge and is now a senior judge. She cofounded Colorado’s unique “Our Courts” civic education project. In her address to the awards ceremony she underscored the need for such education by citing a recent poll noting only 39 percent of Americans can identify the three separate branches of government: the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
Judge Daniel was the first African-American U.S. District Judge in Colorado when he was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1995. Besides his many legal duties, he emphasized the importance of mentoring children and young adults. He died May 10, 2019.
Besides honoring judicial excellence, the annual awards event helps promote that excellence by raising money for CJI’s efforts on behalf of education and training for Colorado judges and court personnel. CJI also uses those finds to support the merit system of judicial selection that Colorado voters established in a 1966 Constitutional Amendment.
In lieu of the hotly partisan and heavily financed elections plaguing many states, when a vacancy on the bench occurs in Colorado, non-partisan commissions review potential replacements and nominate two or three candidates to the governor. Once appointed, a judge serves at least two years before facing voters in a non-partisan retention election. If voters decide not to give the judge a full term, the merit process starts over again. If retained, the judge serves a term of ten years on the Supreme Court, eight years on the Court of Appeals, six years for the District Court and four years for county courts. At the end of the term, the judge can stand for retention to another term, but may not serve in office past his or her 72nd birthday.
The merit selection system is backed by high standards for judicial conduct and performance. An independent commission on judicial discipline reviews complaints against judges and may institute disciplinary or removal proceedings for violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. This commission also may retire a judge for disability of a permanent character interfering with performance of duties.
Bob Ewegen, who retired from The Denver Post in 2008 after more than 36 years at the paper, is CJI's Journalist in Residence and an emeritus member of the CJI Board.