I recently have read the court papers filed in connection with the county's appeal of former Chief Judge Richard Doucette's December 2002 order, and I may have stumbled upon something readers may not know.
The taxpayers and voters of Routt County may not be aware that building our new courthouse is a responsibility that may not rest solely with the county commissioners. In fact, if one is to believe the state attorney general, Colorado law envisions a rather interesting "partnership" between the commissioners and the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court when it comes to building courthouses. The law seems to be that the county should obtain the (advance) approval of the building from the chief justice. If they fail to get this approval, their plans -- no matter how well intentioned, could actually be vetoed.
Why should the chief justice have a say-so in how we build our courthouse in Routt County? It is because a county courthouse is very different from a shopping center or big-box retailer. A courthouse is a historic building that serves one of the most important functions in our democracy. It houses our county's portion of the American legal system, the revered third branch of government. The chief justice is the head of the judicial branch in our state. She is the chief officer of the court system, and she is responsible for the judges who make it function.
So, have our county commissioners been working with the chief justice as required? Legal papers filed in the appeal indicate that at some point the chief justice did approve plans for a new courthouse, but the county also admits that the plans she approved were for the downtown site. It is reported that the chief justice has never seen, let alone approved, plans for the west end site now favored by the commissioners.
The county points to the December 2002 order by Doucette, which it believes forced them all too quickly from the approved downtown site to the unapproved west end site. But it is unclear from reading his order that Doucette ever contemplated a west end site, or for that matter, any site other than the current downtown courthouse site. It is difficult to imagine how his decision could permit the county to fail to seek the chief justice's approval for the west end site.
The county also argues that voters "rejected" the downtown site. Even if that's true, it too does nothing to reduce commissioners' responsibility to work with the chief justice as to the west end site. The assertion of voter rejection of the downtown site is a recurring theme in the legal pleadings. It also appears in the county's wetlands management application to the Army Corps of Engineers. However, the November 2002 ballot very clearly asked voters only whether they would be willing to raise taxes for the purpose of building a court facility. And to be fair, the final reference in the county's legal pleadings eventually makes that distinction. Never have voters been asked to select a location.
So what should be done? When it comes to the new courthouse, the county commissioners may not be an entity unto themselves. They recognized that when they previously sought and received approval from the chief justice for the downtown site.
If the county is required to seek further approval to change its proposal to the west end site, it should do so promptly to avoid a veto. If the commissioners choose not to do so, they should explain the reasons for their decision. As our elected officials, we are counting on them to act appropriately on our behalf.
Dan R. DeLacy