OUR VIEW: A Not-So-Private Affair

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The arrest of Judge Joel Thompson's girlfriend on drug charges last year was an unfortunate incident.

The arrest came in the middle of the Thomas Lee Johnson murder trial.

A couple of days after Thompson threatened DEA agent Donald Sperry with contempt if he did not reveal how he obtained certain phone records, Sperry arrested Thompson's girlfriend, Billie Jo Vreeman, at the couple's home in Moffat County. Given the potential conflict, Thompson correctly chose to recuse himself from the trial.

Some believe Sperry acted out of spite because of the judge's contempt warning. And now that the 14th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance has recommended that Thompson not be retained, some believe Thompson is being unfairly punished.

Thompson's supporters noted that during its undercover investigation of Vreeman, the DEA found no evidence that Thompson was involved in the use or sale of illegal drugs and that Vreeman's arrest is a private matter that should have no bearing on his status as a judge.

But certainly Thompson knew the choices he made in his personal life could have a bearing on his professional one. A majority of the defendants who come before Thompson are there because of choices they have made in their private lives.

Surely if Thompson is going to sit in judgment of them, he must be held to an even higher standard.

In the performance review, the commission stated, "survey responses questioned whether Judge Thompson's personal relationships were having an effect on his judicial performance. Several comments indicated that publicity concerning his private life raised concerns as to public confidence and the standards of conduct to which judges must adhere."

The comments seem fair in light of the incident, but it would be too simple to say that the "do not retain" recommendation was a direct result of Vreeman's arrest.

More important are results of a survey used to assist the commission with its performance review.

Only 28 percent of attorneys and 38 percent of non-attorneys gave Thompson high marks for "courtesy to parties or witnesses."

By comparison, 65 percent of attorneys and 68 percent of non-attorneys statewide gave their judges top marks for courtesy. Several survey respondents questioned Thompson's temperament, saying he is arrogant, rude and inconsiderate.

We do not question Thompson's legal abilities. But there is more to being a judge, including accountability to the public.

The review by the Commission on Judicial Performance is a fair way to provide that accountability, and we advise following the commission's recommendation not to retain Judge Thompson.

Similarly, we support the recommendation of the commission that Routt County Judge James Garrecht be retained.

The Commission on Judicial Performance wrote that "Judge Garrecht received high ratings from both attorneys and non-attorneys in virtually every category of the survey."

Also noteworthy is that every attorney surveyed supported Garrecht's retention.

Summaries of the Commission on Judicial Performance may be found in the 2002 Ballot Information Booklet mailed to all registered voters.

Full reports are available at the Colorado Bar Association Web site, www.cobar.org.

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