Denver Bar Association
September 2000
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More Decide to Judge Not

by Diane Hartman

More Decide to Judge Not
Here's what it takes (maybe) to don the robe,
bang the gavel.

what goes into the mysterious and hugely important process of "selecting a judge"? Sometimes members ask what it really takes to become a district or county court judge in Denver.

To use the lawyerly catch-all phrase: It depends . . . on many factors.

First, the number of applicants isn't what it used to be (the judicial nominating commissions might receive 20 applications now, half of what they used to get a few years back). Competition would seem to be less.

But aside from the standard requirements, some present and former judicial nominating commission members told The Docket what they looked for:

  • "You want them to be the best of the best. We look for diversity of background, but also for those who have stayed places for a reasonable length of time."

  • "We look at the people who recommend them. Are they recommended by an impressive name in legal circles? Some letters are quite eloquent."

  • "We do check references and we check the cases they write down. Some put incorrect case numbers. It looks sloppy, shows a lack of attention to detail or indicates they may be hiding something."

  • "People's reputation for integrity and reasonableness is very important. We pay close attention to prior behavior, as it relates to professionalism."

  • "Some commissioners refuse to consider those who write the application by hand. They feel it's sloppy."

  • Community service and bar association work is certainly a consideration, most said. "It could also be teaching Sunday school. We know people have to spend a lot of time with their children, so we would look at the whole picture. It's like looking at a mosaic."

  • "We like to get people who are at the peak of their powers -- attorneys with enough experience who also have enough energy. It's kind of a delicate balance."

  • "It's helpful to have experience in the court where you're applying."
  • "We're looking for someone well-balanced, with good knowledge of the law and common sense. We try to figure out how they might exercise their judgment. We look at things like tax liabilities and judgments against them. They have to write a page on why they want to be a judge and we usually ask them about that."

  • "We look for good solid citizens. Your reputation as a lawyer is critical."

Who wouldn't want to be the all-powerful, robe-wearing, gavel-wielding authority who sits taller than anyone in the courtroom?

We asked several prominent lawyers--so reputable they would surely be chosen if they applied--why they didn't want a place on the bench.

One summed it up: "pay, workload, stress, public animosity and the bureaucratic hassle of the judicial department." Everyone mentioned low pay.

Others imagined the isolation they would feel: "I enjoy the camaraderie of the profession . . . I wouldn't want less contact with lawyer friends." Several said the specter of term limits (where they might give up a good practice to become a judge, then be out of a job) would deter them. Another said: "I would miss being on the battlefield."

One long-time attorney said that although he probably works longer hours than most judges, "I have greater flexibility in terms of when I work hard and when I take time off." Another big-firm partner said: "You have to put up with a lot of untrained, careless and unprofessional lawyers."

"You have to put up with a lot of untrained, careless and unprofessional lawyers."

When we asked younger attorneys, with good reputations and some experience under their belts, why they

hadn't applied (or if they applied, why they think they hadn't been chosen), most said: "The fix is in. You have to be a prosecutor, at least for the district court where the governor makes appointments. Why should I bother?" (Since Gov. Owens took office, three of his four Denver appointments have come from the District Attorney's office.)

We also asked some judges about their level of satisfaction:

A relatively new judge loves the job:

"I view it as a different way of helping the community. In Denver County Court, half of my cases are pro se. They can be frustrating, but also the most fun. We see Denver, and all walks of life."

Another judge, who got an appointment on the second try, said it's a change of pace from dealing with clients and the headaches of running a law office. "Also, I like making decisions and enjoy the interaction of everyone in the court. There's lots of action in county court--stuff you'll never see anywhere else. I try to guide people in the right direction and help them if they need help."

The pressure is off--you run the show, said one judge, who likes the "home delivery" aspect of running a court, where people come to you. "And the idea of not having to be entrepreneurial is very attractive. You don't have to generate enough clients, collect fees, meet the payroll." On one hand, he appreciates the challenge of trying to do the right thing in criminal sentencing, where "some imagination might turn someone around." On the other: "We can't make changes in the way the system operates, even if we know the changes are rational."

Another popular reaction is: "It beats the alternative--if you're a judge, you don't have to be a lawyer." A veteran judge, who applied several times before being appointed, said applicants should be prepared to take less pay, to have a good sense of humor and roll with the punches. "If you take yourself real seriously, you'll be in trouble." He also advises those who apply to persevere, that the names sent to the governor or the mayor "depend on what they're looking for at the time."

Current wisdom seems to be that if you want to be a judge, and you believe you're qualified (don't just ask your mom), you should keep trying. Many who are on the bench now applied quite a few times.

"People shouldn't let rumors (of who has a 'lock' on the position) deter them from applying," one judge said. "It's always a question of the relative merits."

If an attorney is selected to be interviewed by the commission, it's recommended that they "remember it's a job interview. We want to see that they're truly interested and able to communicate that. Are they relaxed? Can they show a depth of knowledge and intelligence?"

One judge said it sometimes came down to luck. "If there's a court that's crying out for female judges and you're a male, forget it. It depends on what the commission is looking for at the time. And of course it depends on the appointing authority and what the governor's agenda is. We're seeing a lot of prosecutors appointed right now, although one national study shows defense attorneys tend to be the hardest sentencers. After getting to know my clients (when he was a defense attorney), I didn't want them out there either."

Because of state law, little time is allowed to publicize judicial vacancies. Anyone who is considering applying, should be part of the bar association's listserv (go to, look at the "quick menu" at the top of the page, click on listservs and sign up). As soon as a vacancy is announced, the listserv goes out. The DBA also sends postcards for vacancies.

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