‘There are things that kept me up at night’: judges speak candidly with Denver students Dishes
Three members of the state’s appeals court faced questions from curious high school students Tuesday. One of the most common issues was how to separate their feelings about cases from the impartial legal decisions they are expected to make.
The judges acknowledged that it takes practice.
“Sometimes I find myself angry at a police officer who doesn’t give the proper warnings, like Miranda Warnings, or does something to coerce someone into confessing,” Judge Matthew D. Grove said. “Yes, there are things that have kept me up at night.
Grove, along with Justices David J. Richman and Ted C. Tow III, were part of the three-person panel that heard two real appeals at STRIVE Prep – RISE, a charter school in Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. The visit was part of the 35-year-old branch of justice’s ‘Courts in Community’ programme. Last fall, the Colorado Supreme Court traveled to Pomona High School in Arvada for hearings, and judges will repeat the experience at Colorado Mesa University next month.
Ross Gothelf is the Life 101 civics and economics course teacher for Year 11 students. Months before the event, he said two attorneys and a judge briefed him on the cases and provided him with educational materials about the Colorado court system.
“I majored in political science and almost went to law school, but I ended up staying in the classroom,” Gothelf said. “I want to give a lot of credit to the scholars: they’re juggling a lot right now. To see how dedicated they are to the cases feels so phenomenal.”
Gothelf’s students witnessed two half-hour oral arguments covering different areas of law. In case of Hogan et al. v. City of EngelwoodAn Arapahoe County judge ruled that state immunity does not protect Englewood from being sued after two women crashed their golf cart at the Broken Tee Golf Course and sustained injuries when a concealed tree stump was sticking out of the ground.
The city appealed, arguing that the tree stump and surrounding tall grass did not pose an unreasonable risk to health or safety, particularly given that the plaintiffs were not on the cart path.
“This case has common sense and also a golf context,” said David M. Westbrook, attorney for plaintiffs Rebecca Hogan and Betty Medina. “It’s kind of common sense that a tree stump is a tripping hazard.”
In the second case people v chapel, an Arapahoe County jury convicted David Joseph Chapel of two trespassing charges stemming from a night of drinking at a house party. When Chapel woke up at the party house at 4 a.m., he heard a loud noise and saw people fleeing out the door and across the balcony.
With the temperature below freezing, Chapel attempted to enter neighboring homes to warm. A resident found him at her apartment, but agreed that Chapel had not argued or fought with her when asked to leave. Chapel claimed on appeal that the jury found a “choice of evil“Defense that would have justified his trespassing due to an emergency.
“We all think to ourselves, ‘I wonder if what he did was reasonable. I wonder if it was his only option,'” public defender Mark Evans said. But in reality “we decide whether a group of 12 people can make this decision alone.”
Between cases, the audience could question the attorneys. A student asked about the length of a criminal case, to which Evans replied that his client Chapel had finally appealed three years after his arrest in March 2019.
“To be honest, the time between the date of conviction and the decision on appeal is in itself an injustice. He’s already done with his sentence, so we’re fighting over his criminal record right now,” Evans said.
Addressing Grove specifically, Junior Eliud Jimenez noted that the judge seemed frustrated that the trial court was in the hogan The case has never held a hearing to present the facts about the allegedly dangerous tree stump for review by the Court of Appeals.
“I know you just struggled with the case,” Jimenez said. “I know it can be frustrating. My question is: how do you keep your cool? How do you keep calm?”
“Some of us are better than others,” Tow quipped. “You must keep reminding yourself that we are a servant of the people and essentially representing our state when we are up here, and we must act accordingly.”
“To be clear,” Grove added, “my frustration today is not with the behavior of the attorneys. … Expressing frustration with the law and how it works or doesn’t work is different than when someone doesn’t answer the question or answers the question they want to ask. But take a deep breath, remember who you are and why you have the robe.”
Several students tested the judges’ ability to remain objective. Morgan Rasmussen noted that certain cases will inevitably worry even her.
Tow replied that he used to prosecute crimes where the victims were children. The emotions don’t go away, he agreed, but he’s learned how to keep those emotions from interfering with his job.
“I call it my ‘garage door’. It just shuts down and keeps the traumatic part separate from the reflective part about the law,” he said.
Gothelf, the teacher, said afterwards that many of his students were immigrants or were their parents. Consequently, the law was not an abstract matter for them. Some participants found the cases entertaining and got an insight into what a career as a lawyer could look like.
JiRyan Ellis said the students learned the details of both cases in advance, but changed his mind after hearing the arguments, particularly regarding the golf cart case.
“I came into the game thinking, hey, they (the plaintiffs) knowingly broke the rules,” he explained. “But the lawyer gave me a new perspective on his side.”
“I was totally on the side of the government. Follow the rules! That’s what I think,” countered Sasha McCalman.
Richman, who joined the Court of Appeals after his appointment in 2008, recalled to a smaller group of students that he knew he wanted to be a lawyer when he was around high school age. His inspiration was the 1963 book Gideon’s trumpetdetailing the story behind the US Supreme Court’s decision Gideon vs. Wainwright. The case established the right of indigent criminal defendants to an appointed attorney and spurred the establishment of the Colorado State Attorney’s Office.
“I worked really hard in high school and college to go to law school,” he said.
A teacher asked the jury how consistently the hundreds of judges at trials across Colorado apply the law, since the Court of Appeals sees almost every case challenged directly from all of the state’s 22 judicial districts. Tow, a former trial court judge, said that all errors of judgment are not created equal. It’s one thing for a judge to be reversed on appeal without proper guidance, he said, but it would be different if “I just screw it up.”
“I took your question a little differently,” Richman interjected, “and it was: What’s the quality of judges across the state?”
He explained that unlike some other states that elect judges, Colorado relies on an impartial, citizen-led system of commissions to review and recommend judge candidates.
“I think Colorado is a shining example of how judges should be benched,” Richman said.