Book Review: The Luckiest Judge, Backstabbing and Betrayal in Denver’s Trial Courts
by Fred Rogers
Ed Simons’ new book, The Luckiest Judge (2005 Benche Marke Press; $12.95, at the Tattered Cover), explores office politics among Denver’s trial judges during the period he served from the 1970s to 2000. The title is puzzling, as the book presents a theme of heavy-handed treatment and treachery by Simons’ bench-mates. It is a gossipy exposé of back-stabbing and betrayal. One judge reported that upon seeing the book, the first place he looked was the index to see if he was among those being criticized.
This autobiography follows the model of a Horatio Alger story, describing Simons’ long trek to the bench from that Kansas farmhouse cum outhouse. It takes the reader through his humble Kansas upbringing (in a household of 10 children, an alcoholic father and no indoor plumbing), his arrival in Colorado in the mid-1960s, and follows his consequent rise in legal circles, national politics and the judiciary.
The Luckiest Judge presents a solid account of Denver trial courts and judicial selection politics in the last 25 years of the last century. When a young 35-year-old Simons took the bench in the early 1970s, he was often mistaken for a clerk due to his youthful appearance. He stood out from the other McNichols’ appointees, as most were close to retirement age and enjoyed a curious coincidence of all having names beginning with the letter "C": Conley, Cole, Commins, Chrysler, Close, Crew and Carrelli, not to mention Coughlin and Campbell, who came along a few years later.
Simons recalls wistfully his days as a county court judge, when the bench was friendly, congenial and collegial. Problems such as Mayor Peña’s firing of Judge Larry Lopez-Alexander in Simons’ first year as chief were the exception. Although he never says so directly, Simons implies that he never should have applied for the promotion to District Court. Despite a botched interview, Simons made Gov. Roy Romer’s appointment list, having been initially bypassed for the position. Foreshadowing problems to come, Simons wondered at his swearing-in ceremony what had he got himself into.
Invoking the Peter Principle, he reports on the wrenching adjustment from county court to district court. Gone were the days of conducting a few preliminary hearings, managing staff by walking around, and drinking a lot of coffee in the basement cafeteria of the courthouse. He now faced an overwhelming caseload of divorces (he never understood the many ways to divide a pension), motions to suppress (he routinely took them under advisement, displeasing the district attorney’s office), and complicated civil cases (which frightened him at first but in them he later found his métier). However, it soon became apparent that his biggest problems were not how he handled his cases, but his backstabbing bench-mates.
While desperate to disguise his feelings of inadequacy at having joined "the chosen" on the District Court, he found it difficult to hide his perceived shortcomings. Rather than fake it (as he implies some judges do) by deciding issues with confidence and panache, and not admitting that the material was too complicated, arcane (and maybe boring) to understand, Simons agonized about his cases, over-preparing for every matter scheduled before him. For better or worse, he chose to share his self-doubts with his fellow judges.
Without spoiling the story, I’ll say this: If you enjoy a good tattletale book, this is for you. The voyeur in us seldom can wait to read the details about familiar colleagues. You’ll read about Simons’ good friends who betrayed him when he confided in them, seeking support. You’ll learn why Simons is happier today driving a florist delivery truck than he would have been had he been accepted into the state’s senior judge program, from which he was blackballed at the behest of former colleagues. You’ll see the names of current judges and a justice with whom he engaged in angry courthouse shouting exchanges. Some, like the federal judge-to-be who wanted a parking ticket "fixed," are not named.
Notwithstanding the disappointments, the author is justifiably proud of his accomplishments, even if they were achieved at great effort in overcoming his shortcomings. If this book cannot be called a literary work, it is a quick read with a comfortable pace, and one can skip around to the juicy parts without missing much. Be prepared for occasional grammatical and editing errors (perhaps validating Simons’ insecurity about his education), occasional misspellings of familiar Colorado names such as Judge Karen Metzker (sic), eponymous daughter of former Colorado Attorney General John Metzger. It’s a good story, and Ed Simons got to tell it his way first. Power to him!
Fred Rodgers was on The Docket’s Charter Editorial Board from 1978 to 1982. He just completed a one-year term as CBA Senior Vice-President. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.