Commission advises to retain Routt County Judge Garrecht
Surveys and interviews used in review of Routt County Court judge
August 8, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the makeup of the Judicial Performance Commission. There are four attorneys and four non-attorneys.
Few people have spent any significant amount of time in front of Routt County Judge James Garrecht, either in his old courtroom downtown or in the new Routt County Justice Center. He's been tending court for 24 years, all in Routt County, but when voters are asked to vote whether to retain him in the November election, it will be tantamount to the flip of a coin.
But the Judicial Performance Commission, made up of four attorneys and four non-attorneys from the 14th Judicial District, used a survey and interviews to rate Garrecht, the only judge in Routt County up for retention this year. The consensus: retain him.
The state hired a survey company to poll people who played a role in Garrecht's courtroom during the year: lawyers, witnesses, jurors and parties who appeared before him in courtroom 1A.
From there, the Judicial Performance Commission used an interview and writing samples submitted by the judge to review his performance and issue a summary recommendation.
"Judge Garrecht handles a high volume of cases in county court and demonstrates an ability to keep cases moving forward in a timely manner," the summary states. "The surveys indicate that Judge Garrecht has the ability to relate to both attorneys and non-attorneys in the courtroom in a cordial and friendly manner. Overall, the survey results show he is fair and efficient. Judge Garrecht is consistent in his sentences and rulings, reflecting a fair application of the law. The commission recommends based on courtroom observation that the court should return to a more formal standard with a focus on decorum."
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The final comment — the only real criticism leveled at the judge — also is something that sets Garrecht's courtroom apart.
"My courtroom tends to be a little … less austere. A little bit more friendly and communicative," Garrecht said.
He said having a slightly relaxed atmosphere also serves the interests of justice.
"I expect this to be kind of a friendly court; this is a people's court," he said. "I don't want to make it a scary place. I want them to feel confident and express their opinion and say what they want to say without fear coming into the equation."
Of the 41 attorneys surveyed, 87 percent recommended retaining Garrecht, 8 percent recommended not retaining and 5 percent expressed no opinion. Of the 155 non-attorneys, 78 percent recommended Garrecht's retention, 8 percent recommended against retention and 13 percent did not mark an opinion. The second set doesn't add up to 100 percent because of rounding.
Respondents also were asked to grade Garrecht on a grade of 0 to 4, similar to a grade of F to A. Garrecht was rated 3.41 overall, with 4 being the highest. Attorneys graded him 3.31 overall, with non-attorneys giving a grade of 3.5. The grades were tabulated using a new method this year so they cannot be directly compared to previous surveys, but Garrecht has earned similar grades in other years. Among jurors, Garrecht was graded even higher, at 3.71.
Steamboat Springs lawyer Kris Hammond, a member of the commission, said the system of judge review prevents the campaigning that judges in other states are forced to do.
"I think it really cheapens the whole process to see judges with billboards up on highways, 'Vote for me, I'll be meaner than the other guy,'" he said.
In Colorado, judges are appointed by the governor and go through the merit selection process for an up-or-down vote.
District Judges Shelley Hill and Michael O'Hara also serve in Routt County but are not up for a retention vote this year.
The commission also recommended Garrecht's retention in the previous four reviews, in 2006, 2002 and 1998. He said the process gives him feedback that helps him refine his performance. He said he hasn't changed how he acts dramatically throughout the years but that he has become more comfortable in the role.
He estimated that he has seen more than 72,000 cases, estimated on the low range of 3,000 to 4,000 cases per year.
He said the reviews are serious — at least a couple of judges were not retained throughout the years — but he also has never had a negative review.