What Do You Do Down There?
by Hon. Robert L. McGahey
Denver District Court
DBA President Chris Little decided not to write his own solumn each month. Rather, he believes it's important to recognize the talent and dedication we have in the Colorado courts. Judges from various courts will write monthly about their daily experiences.
Up there somewhere it says I’m supposed to write about my daily experiences. Do you really want to know?
I’ve just started my third year in the Criminal Division of Denver District Court; somewhat to my amazement, Judge Bayless appointed me presiding judge of the division for this year. For someone who grew up and got old in the law as an insurance defense lawyer, being immersed in criminal law every day has been a real eye-opener.
You think you know about the drug problem? Come to Courtroom 11 on a Thursday or Friday, when we do our docket. Watch how some days more than half of an 80-case docket is directly or indirectly related to drugs.
You want to see how families get along? Try to pick a jury in a domestic violence case when more than half the people on the panel are no more than one or two degrees of separation away from their own instances of sexual assault, abuse or domestic violence. Come listen to the wailing of a young victim’s family at a murder sentencing.
You want to see how our youth are doing? Read the direct filings on juveniles that I have to sign; see how many of them allege significant assaults or homicides. Or, sentence a 20-year-old to consecutive sentences adding up to 256 years for a series of aggravated robberies.
You think you know about the drug problem? Come and listen to someone who has successfully completed Peer 1 and a tough probation, and is now clean and sober.
You want to see how families get along? Come listen to parents whose only child died as the result of a vehicular homicide forgive the young man who was driving the car and promise to support him in his rehabilitation.
You want to see how our youth are doing? Look at the face of a 19-year-old who was deeply involved in gang life return for sentence reconsideration after completing boot camp while in the custody of the Department of Corrections. Listen to him thank you for giving him a chance to turn his life around. (Anecdotally, I’ve sentenced about 35 young men to boot camp; of those who have successfully completed the program and been put on probation, only three have violated their probation.) Or, talk to a wide-eyed class of high school students who have been sitting through a homicide trial and help them recognize that this is a courtroom, not a TV studio. Preside over some high school mock trials and get a glimpse of the people who will pick up where we leave off.
This job is more difficult than I ever thought it would be. The responsibilities can feel overwhelming; I can open my mouth and someone will be behind bars for the rest of her life. Indeed, I can sign my name to the bottom of a piece of paper and a human being will die. But there are chances to bring some degree of peace and safety to a victim’s life, to help someone shake an addiction, to get a kid’s life on track. There is the admiration and humbleness I feel every day watching overworked and underpaid DAs and Public Defenders work together with a level of professionalism that boggles the mind, and that civil lawyers would do well to emulate. I have the chance to watch those same lawyers demonstrate advocacy skills and courtroom talent of the highest quality. I get to see my dedicated colleagues cope with massive dockets, minimal resources, lack of staff and a crushing caseload — and smile, laugh, cooperate and get it all done. (Every judge on the Denver District Court has something like 450 to 500 active cases at any given time; most courtrooms do not have their own copiers or fax machines.) I’m allowed to observe the Constitution in action every single day. And I don’t even have the salary, pension plan, staff support or lifetime tenure that the Stout Street judges have.
I wouldn’t trade it for the world.