Steamboat Springs The chief judge for the 14th Judicial District has recused himself from a Steamboat Springs murder case and reassigned it to the district's only other judge.
The move surprised the attorney defending the murder suspect.
On Thursday morning, Judge Richard P. Doucette notified prosecuting and defense attorneys he would be reassigning the Thomas Lee Johnson murder case to Judge Joel S. Thompson.
Doucette, who has served as the chief judge of the district about 10 years out of his 20 years behind the bench, cited a heavy caseload for the reason for reassigning the case to Thompson.
Doucette's order reads as follows; "Due to the docket congestion and heavy workload, including presiding over other cases in which first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder have been charged and for the purpose of district-wide case management the undersigned assigns the Honorable Joel S. Thompson to set, hear and determine all issues in this case."
Thompson became a district judge in July 1994.
Currently, Doucette is presiding over the case of Warren Dean Hillbolt III, who has been charged with first-degree attempted murder. The 33-year-old Yampa man allegedly shot a 24-year-old man in December.
Doucette is also likely to preside over the case of a man who allegedly committed a murder in Grand County.
Norm Townsend, who is defending Johnson, was surprised of Thursday's development.
"The case had already been assigned to Judge Doucette," Townsend said. "It is somewhat unusual to change judges.
"But it should not make a big difference."
Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James, who is prosecuting the 30-year-old man who allegedly killed Lori Bases, would not comment on the case.
Doucette's decision to reassign the case came two days after Johnson made his first appearance in district court in Routt County.
On Tuesday, Johnson was scheduled to be arraigned in front of Doucette on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree criminal trespass and criminal mischief.
Johnson has been charged with the crimes for the alleged murder of the 31-year-old Steamboat Springs woman and the vandalism of her sport-utility vehicle.
Johnson did not enter a plea to the charges because of a number of motions Townsend has filed.
During the short court proceeding, Doucette set two hearing dates, one in February and one in March, to address the motions that deal with evidence and a state statute regarding insanity.
Townsend, St. James and Thompson spoke Thursday morning about the direction of the case during a conference call.
During the call, Thompson rescheduled the motion hearings for 10 a.m. Feb. 23 and 9 a.m. March 20.
Townsend said he believes the change in judges could be a benefit for scheduling future court dates.
"It will make our lives easier for scheduling purposes," Townsend said. "Judge Thompson never goes over to Grand County."
What Townsend is referring to is Doucette and Thompson currently share the caseload in the 14th District, which includes Grand, Routt and Moffat counties.
The two judges share cases in Routt County, but Doucette handles district cases in Grand County, and Thompson handles cases in Moffat County.
The February hearing has been scheduled to deal with two motions Townsend has filed regarding evidence St. James holds but has yet to give to the defense attorney.
Townsend wants Thompson to order St. James to turn over all photographs, police reports, audio tapes and videotapes St. James has as evidence.
State statutes required St. James to turn over this type of evidence to Townsend within 20 days after Johnson's first court appearance, which was June 26.
Townsend has become frustrated with the time it has taken for St. James to comply with the law, calling it "flagrant foot dragging."