Public defender steps away from his love of the law after 22 years in town

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— Bill Schurman packed up the final remnants of his professional life and loaded it in his truck last week.

Big Red, as Schurman affectionately calls the rusted 1972 Ford truck with the fading decals, is hard to miss.

Northwest Colorado's veteran public defender won't be so easily missed.

Schurman said goodbye to his work in October. His retirement marked 26 years with Colorado's Office of the State Public Defender. Twenty-two of those years were spent at the regional office in Steamboat Springs.

Schurman became a public defender straight out of the Denver University School of Law in 1972, only two years after the state system had been established.

"He's an institution within the public defender system," said Norm Townsend, Schurman's friend and co-worker since the mid-1980s. "He was a dedicated public servant and a damn good lawyer. I'm going to miss him terribly."

Townsend's office is just down the hall from the now-empty office on Oak Street that once held his colleague's work for so many years.

Schurman is made of the stuff that defines public defenders, Townsend said, including the knack to juggle 400 balls at a time well.

"It's a dedication to helping the poor, and he certainly had that in spades," he said.

Schurman didn't foresee courtrooms in his future. It was not until three years into his graduate work at Wayne State University in Detroit that the legal profession caught his attention.

He's never taken his eyes off the law since.

"He loves the law," said Mary Schurman, his wife of 14 years. Schurman met her husband while working as an investigator at the public defender's office in Steamboat. She returned to work after his retirement. Her husband was called to his line of work, she said.

"He has sort of an affection for the underdog," she said. "It's inbred in him."

Bill Schurman's success in the courtroom was not only a reflection of his passion for helping people, she said.

"It's his love of the law and knowing it better than the next person and using it to give people the best representation."

Townsend teases his friend about trying to be a real lawyer before coming back to his calling.

Schurman practiced private criminal law for four and a half years at the former local firm of Sharp & Black before he resumed his role as a public defender in 1982.

Work on the other side of the fence never appealed to Schurman. He was asked if he would consider working in the District Attorney's office.

"I never wanted to be a prosecutor," he said.

Schurman is remembered as much for his performance in the courtroom as his legal mind.

"He had a great voice," said retiring 14th Judicial District Judge Richard Doucette.

"He just had a presence in the courtroom that was very impressive."

Schurman is a tall man who commands attention with his deep voice. But his playful smile gives it all away.

"He's always been entertaining," Doucette said.

Although Schurman always managed to bring humor to his work, Doucette said, he handled his cases professionally.

His longevity as a public defender demonstrates his commitment to people who are disenfranchised, he said.

"It's a tribute to his humanity," Doucette said.

Routt County Judge James Garrecht remembers working alongside Schurman when he worked in the District Attorney's office in the early 1980s and has been presiding over Schurman's cases since he was appointed judge in 1987.

Schurman has ardently defended the constitutional rights of the underprivileged, he said.

Northwest Colorado is fortunate to have been the recipient of Schurman's experience and savvy for so many years, Garrecht said.

Schurman recognizes many of the people he defends are often the undesirables of society.

But he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Who else is going to defend (them)?" he said.

It's impossible for Schurman to tally the number of people he has defended in his 26 years as a public defender, although some faces stick out more than others.

Some cases were amusing, others heartbreaking.

"So much of the job of a public defender is social work," Schurman said. "It's not black and white."

Retirement doesn't signal the end to Schurman's time in the courtroom. He intends to do some private work.

He wants to spend more time with his family. He and Mary have two children, 13-year-old Seth and 9-year-old Elizabeth.

Schurman won't be a stranger at his old office. And neither will Big Red.

Just like the law, his aging vehicles are things Schurman can't live without the rusted-out Jeep, the Camaro he bought fresh out of law school and the old truck, complete with the newest decal that urges a "no" vote on 2C.

"He can't sell the old ones," Mary Schurman said.

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