County court judges in Colorado don’t need law degrees to sit on the bench in most parts of the state.
They don’t need college degrees, either. People with high school diplomas or GEDs and no legal training can become county court judges in 45 of the state’s 64 counties, presiding over lower-level criminal and civil cases with all the authority of any other county court judge.
Proponents of these so-called “lay judges” say the lower educational qualifications are key to filling judgeships in Colorado’s rural and remote counties where the positions might otherwise go unfilled because of a lack of local attorneys interested in the job. Critics suggest non-attorney judges aren’t qualified to interpret the law and mete out justice, even in low-level legal matters.
There are only four lay judges working in Colorado right now, a Denver Post review of the state judiciary found. The newest, Michael Halpin, was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis in October as a county court judge in Custer County.
Polis chose Halpin, a resident of Custer County and former sheriff’s deputy with a high school education, over an attorney candidate who lives in Loveland.
The other lay judges currently on the bench are: Kristei Jones, a rancher and veteran in Yuma County with a high school education, Truston Lee Fisher, a college-educated veteran whose been on the bench in Lincoln County since 1987, and Richard Medina, a college-educated former building inspector, in Crowley County.
The state’s four lay judges either declined interview requests or could not be reached.
Medina is the third consecutive lay judge to hold the role in Crowley County, Chief Judge Mark MacDonnell said, and being able to fill that job with non-attorneys has been critical over the years.
“For those three instances, there were not attorneys (who applied), so there would not have been a Crowley judge had there not been a lay judge willing to take it,” MacDonnell said.
“This is a demanding job”
Lay judges, who work both full- and part-time, can only preside over county courts, which typically handle misdemeanor, traffic and lower-level civil cases, not district courts, which handle felonies and more serious cases. But they still make important decisions about bond, search warrants, protection orders and jail sentences, said attorney Tristan Gorman, policy director at the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.
“Criminal law is an interplay between state statutes, state case law, state rules of evidence and criminal procedure, state and federal constitutional rights, federal case law and, in some circumstances, federal statute,” Gorman said. “So to be able to understand all of that, and to be what they are required to be as a judicial officer — which is an impartial, neutral arbiter who finds facts and applies the law without violating any of the rights of the accused — I think it’s incredibly difficult for anyone to do that, let alone someone who is not admitted to practice law.”
All new judges in Colorado go through a week-long new judge training program, said Rob McCallum, spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Department. The program covers not only basic procedure and law but also more general information on how judges should behave and when they must recuse themselves from a case.
“No matter what level of court you are, or what background or degree you have, this is a demanding job and you are going to have a steep learning curve right away,” he said.
MacDonnell said he supervises lay judges more closely than other judges, particularly when they start off in the job. But he’s found that non-attorney judges quickly learn and grow into their roles.
“It’s a huge responsibility and they really dive in and learn and learn and learn,” he said.
He added that appeals of county court decisions are heard in district court, which gives people a relatively quick way to raise concerns and remedy any mistakes made by a lay judge.
“The attorneys, particularly the public defenders and district attorneys, when they have a new lay judge, they do an awful lot to assist that judge, collectively,” he said. “And they have the ability to communicate with me if they see issues.”
But Gorman said no amount of on-the-job training will match up to a law degree. She noted that when defendants want to represent themselves in court, state law requires that they be given a specific advisement about their right to an attorney, the complexity of criminal law and the consequences of proceeding without an attorney.
“It’s basically an attempt to talk them out of representing themselves,” she said, adding that one of the typical questions as part of that process is about the defendant’s level of education. “It’s just an interesting parallel to me that we can have county court judges presiding over criminal proceedings, up to and including trials, when they have no more education than the people being discouraged from representing themselves as a party.”
“Talking the same language”
Lay judges are nominated, appointed, evaluated and paid in the same way as judges with law degrees. The Judicial Performance Commission’s reviews of lay judges have been mixed in recent years. The evaluators in 2020 suggested Medina needed to improve his legal knowledge and consistency in following procedures.
“The Commission understands the challenges that a lay judge faces,” evaluators wrote. “As Judge Medina is not an attorney, he faces greater challenges than other judges. However, this does not excuse Judge Medina from being an ineffective judge.”
Another lay judge, Fisher, received a score that was higher than the average for all county court judges, both attorneys and not, the evaluations show.
Across the country, 27 states allow lay judges to work in some capacity, said Bill Raftery, senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts. The practice dates back to English common law and the early days of the United States, when remote communities might not have access to an attorney judge for weeks or months at a time and disputes had to be settled locally.
“The idea was, ‘I know the parties, we all know each other,’ so the justice of the peace was the person who was able to say, ‘Yes, Bob, you did take Jim’s sheep, you gotta pay five shillings.’”
But that sort of familiarity with the community has also become also a critique of lay judges, Raftery said, with critics suggesting the judges struggle to be impartial because of their close community ties and lack of legal training.
Colorado’s current lay judges include former law enforcement and prison officers, a former town mayor and a former school board member. McCallum said lay judges use their non-traditional backgrounds to their advantage when presiding over cases.
“Personal traits, professional traits go a long way in being a judicial officer,” he said. “Being able to understand people, relate to people, being able to explain the law to people. When you have people who don’t come from a legal background, they may have an easier time explaining what is going on to people who are appearing in front of them. Because they are talking the same language.”