Judicial Excellence Dinner Celebrates Bringing Courts Closer to the People
DENVER – While prominent Americans – including U. S. Chief Justice John Roberts – have decried the growing politicization of our federal court system, 570 leading Coloradans gathered at the Denver Hilton City Center Oct. 18 to celebrate 52 years of fair and impartial state courts at the Colorado Judicial Institute’s 16th annual Judicial Excellence for Colorado awards dinner.
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 Denver District Judge Morris B. Hoffman, Jefferson County Court Judge Thomas E. Vance and Denver Juvenile Court Magistrate Lisa Gomez for outstanding performance and leadership on the bench.
CJI also honored Chief Judge Alan M. Loeb of the Colorado Court of Appeals and retired Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court Nancy Rice. While past dinners have featured a keynote speaker, often from out of state, that custom was scrapped this year to allow extra film commentaries about the honorees as well as remarks from the honored judges themselves.
This less formal approach produced a more intimate atmosphere as the honorees spoke of the challenges and rewards of their jobs.
Gomez was hailed for “understanding the complexity of the modern family and putting families first in the courtroom.”
Magistrate Gomez spoke for all her colleagues when she said “For us, this is not a job. It’s a calling.”
Judge Vance was hailed for helping citizens who represent themselves “feel as at home in the courtroom as the most experienced attorney.”
The veteran jurist said his years on the bench had taught him that “There are three sides to every story. Your side, my side and, somewhere between them, the truth.
“Three words are important to judging: demeanor, demeanor and demeanor. Treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself and remember – ‘da meaner’ you are, the harder it gets,” Judge Vance joked.
Judge Hoffman noted the strain that running a courtroom often puts heavy demands on a judge’s staff and family. Still, he smiled “After all these years, I still can’t believe they pay me for this job.”
Justice Richard Gabriel, who now serves on the Colorado Supreme Court, said Judge Loeb “Saved me from myself on many occasions” while the two served together on the Court of Appeals. “Yet, he was so kind and respectful you never resented it.”
Retired Court of Appeals Justice Sandra Rothenberg said of the recently retired Justice Rice: “She’s got the wisdom, she’s got the brainpower and she wants to do the right thing. How can you beat that?”
Besides honoring judicial excellence, the annual dinner 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 Journalist in residence and an emeritus member of the CJI Board. He is director of communications and research at the Ewegen Law firm headed by his daughter, Misty Ewegen.