Some against keeping judge

Independent group advises voters not to retain Thompson

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— Routt County voters have been advised not to return one of their judges to the bench.

How much credence they give the men and women who recommended they not re-elect District Judge Joel S. Thompson this November remains to be seen.

"We just hope the public takes our work seriously," said John Ponikvar, a Craig businessman and spokesman for the14th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance that voted 6-to-3 for Thompson's nonretention.

Thompson is one of two judges in the state who was not recommended for retention in an independent evaluation of 104 trial and appellate judges and justices seeking re-election in the Nov. 5 general election.

The evaluation for Thompson cites concerns about courtesy and the effect of personal relationships on his judicial performance.

Routt County Judge James Garrecht and Moffat County Judge Mary Lynne James are also seeking re-election in the 14th Judicial District, which covers Routt, Moffat and Grand counties.

The commission recommended Garrecht and James retain their positions.

Routt County residents vote only on the fate of Thompson and Garrecht.

An unfavorable recommendation does not necessarily mean a judge will not remain on the bench after Nov. 5.

Between 1990 and 2000, 12 judges have received a "do not retain" recommendation, said Michelle Stermer, director of the Colorado Judicial Performance Program.

Voters have not returned four of those 12 judges to office.

Judicial performance commissions are charged with evaluating responses to surveys mailed to people in contact with judges, including attorneys, victims, law enforcement officers, court personnel, jurors, litigants, social workers and probation officers.

Survey results revealed 75 percent of attorneys and 65 percent of non-attorneys support Thompson's retention.

Respondents favorably noted his knowledge of the law, docket management, punctuality and well-reasoned decisions. He received low marks on survey questions that addressed his consideration for parties, attorneys and witnesses.

In an interview with the commission, Thompson said he was not knowingly impolite, although he would not tolerate attorneys whose actions or work was out of line with court procedures or his orders.

Public defender Norm Townsend said the survey results reflect some misperception about Thompson's courtroom manners.

"It's not rudeness and arrogance as much as it is a businesslike attitude," said Townsend, who said he has never perceived the judge as rude or arrogant.

"He's all business. It's just a matter of perception."

David Waite, Chief Deputy District Attorney in Moffat County, agrees that Thompson's strict adherence to legal procedures might be mistaken for arrogance.

"He strives very hard to maintain the judicial decorum, and I think that sometimes is perceived as rude," Waite said. "He's an excellent judge in the courtroom."

Thompson asserted his personal integrity before the commission in response to survey comments that questioned his standard of conduct in light of publicity raised about his private life during the Thomas Lee Johnson trial.

Thompson recused himself from the trial after his live-in girlfriend, Billie Jo Vreeman, was arrested in a federal drug sting at the Moffat County home he and Vreeman shared.

Ponikvar said the commission primarily based its recommendation on the way Thompson treats people in the courtroom.

"That probably weighed more heavily than the problems with his girlfriend," he said. "People were more offended by that than anything."

The small-town atmosphere of Steamboat Springs and Craig tends to mute class differences, and people do not care for people who try to assert themselves as better than everyone else, Ponikvar said.

The commission recognized Thompson's intelligence and devotion to being a judge, Ponikvar said, but could not ignore concerns about his lack of courtesy in the courtroom.

It's healthy for judges to look at their evaluations constructively, he added.

Garrecht said evaluations serve a useful purpose in a rural area such as Northwest Colorado, where judges do not have the opportunities for critique that judges in more metropolitan areas do.

"It gives you a good idea if you have a weakness," he said. "It gives you the opportunity to evaluate whether you need to take some sort of corrective action to improve that aspect of your job."

Before such reviews, Garrecht said, there was no way to get information on a judge's performance out to the public.

"It benefits a judge if he (or she) is willing to look at his critique constructively," he said.

It's unfair, he added, to ask the public to make decisions on someone they know little about.

Garrecht, whose favorable recommendation came by way of an 8-to-1 decision, received high marks in almost every category of the survey.

Commissions weigh such criteria as integrity, fairness, attentiveness, knowledge of the law, communication skills, docket management, preparation, punctuality and effectiveness in working with participants in the judicial process.

The commission noted in its evaluation of Garrecht that 100 percent of attorneys and 77 percent of non-attorneys surveyed supported the Routt County judge's retention.

James agreed the independent reviews are valuable to judges. She said she would never know in what areas she was lacking unless an outside party alerted her.

"Nobody criticizes you to your face," James said. "This is the only process we have where people have a way to tell us what we are doing wrong and right."

The commission voted 6-to-4 that voters retain James in office. Survey respondents, however, raised concerns about her judicial temperament, preparation and timeliness when ruling on motions.

The commission favorably noted her commitment to public service.

Ponikvar said the commission is optimistic about voters using their recommendation as a helpful tool in their decision-making.

"Hopefully our commission really made a difference," he said.

To reach Danie Harrelson call 871-4203

or e-mail dharrelson@steamboatpilot.com

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