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TCL > February 2000 Issue > The Isolation of the Bench: A Disappointing Result of "Progress"

February 2000       Vol. 29, No. 2       Page  19
CBA President's Message to Members

The Isolation of the Bench: A Disappointing Result of "Progress"
by Brenda L. Jackson

Editor's Note: During this administrative year (July 1999-June 2000), this space will be used for material written by CBA President Bart Mendenhall, as well as other officers of the Colorado Bar Association. This month's article was written by Brenda L. Jackson, Cañon City, of the firm of Meconi & Jackson, P.C., and CBA Vice-President from the Fourth District.

There is a certain relief in change, even though it be
from bad to
worse; as I have found in travelling in a
stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one's
position and be bruised in a new place.

—Washington Irving

I discovered a new interest in the "President's Message to Members" columns at the time Bart Mendenhall asked me to write the column for the February issue of The Colorado Lawyer. As a result, I've paid closer attention to the wishes, expectations, hopes, and desires that leaders in the Bar Association have for others in the legal profession. We are asked and expected to become involved in our communities (both legal and non-legal); aspire to render fifty or more hours of pro bono publico legal services per year; find and fight for worthy causes; maintain high levels of professionalism toward our legal peers, clients and the courts; earn a good living by effectively managing and developing our practices; and still find the time to foster meaningful, caring relationships with family and friends.

I had originally planned to write about the differences between urban and rural practice, particularly as it concerns issues of community involvement, professionalism, and pro bono services. However, the recent relocation of the courts in Fremont County to a new building with a high level of security has raised new concerns for members of the local bar about isolation of the courts and judges from the rest of the community.

The Nature of Small Town Practice

I live in a small community. The local attorneys predominately have general practices, and the largest firm has four attorneys. Problems with professionalism may arise occasionally, but are not enduring. The inevitability of dealing with the same adverse attorneys on various cases throughout the years tempers unprofessional behavior quite effectively. Courtesy and professionalism toward the adverse attorney on one case is the expectation, and is likely to be returned on the next case with the same attorney. Attorneys who begin practice in a small town quickly learn the meaning of the expression "what goes around, comes around." An acceptable level of professionalism among the attorneys is generally something that is self-regulated.

Living and working in a small town also allows easy access to community service projects, bar association involvement, and pro bono service. Lawyers are more visible in a small community. Most have a general practice and encounter a wide range of people with diverse occupations, interests, and problems. My colleagues and I are often approached by individuals, as well as charitable, civic, and other community organizations, with requests for services.

Small town communities have the same type of problems as urban areas, only on a smaller scale, and a much smaller budget. There are readily available opportunities for public service, but the demands never subside. There are fewer corporate and individual contributors to draw upon in a small town. Volunteer services are essential to meet the basic societal responsibilities required to make the community a safe, comfortable, and desirable place to live. The danger for many in a small community is getting burned out while turning and tending all of those irons in the fire.

The Isolation of the Bench

If you travel to the judicial building in Fremont County, you must pass through a metal detector, staffed by sheriff's deputies, to enter the premises. The judges and the confidential clerks for the judges are behind locked security doors and are inaccessible to both attorneys and the general public without a grant of permission and a court employee to open the door to allow access. Otherwise, judges are seen only in robes on the bench, and confidential clerks keep in touch by telephone. The building itself is located on the edge of town and is accessible, as a practical matter, only by vehicle. This is a new environment for the courts in Fremont County and has raised an important and new issue for this small community to resolve. Never before have the judges and courts been so inaccessible and physically isolated as they became on December 6, 1999, when the new Fremont County Judicial Center building opened for judicial business.

Prior to December, the courts shared space with the other county offices. No security existed for the courts, other than bailiffs and emergency "panic buttons" for the judges in the courtrooms. There were no searches conducted on attorneys and visitors to the courts. Judges often were seen around the building with or without robes, just visiting with an attorney, a citizen, or a county official about community matters. The clerks and judges were so accessible that it was easy to visit various offices and wrap up loose ends on many cases very quickly. It was not unusual for citizens to watch court proceedings, even though they had no involvement in the cases other than as an observer. Higher profile cases reported in the local papers could draw large crowds. The courts were in the downtown area and were within walking distance for many residents of Cañon City.

I'm not suggesting that the previous facilities were adequate and safe. The courts had outgrown the facilities, and the lack of security was frightening. Clearly, the measures taken by the board of commissioners to provide new physical space for the courts were warranted and necessary. The problem created, though, may be greater than the problems solved. The people of Fremont County were honored to have Chief Justice Mullarkey attend and speak at the dedication ceremony for the new judicial building. She commented on how courthouses used to serve as centers for communities. People were interested in court proceedings and viewed trials as social events. Although much of that has changed over the past fifty years, this community still retained some of those features. With the fortress judicial building now in use, hopes of the courts co-existing as a part of the community are quickly disappearing.

Draw the Courts Back into the Community

The citizens who must vote to retain judges must exert extraordinary efforts to learn anything about the judges whose careers they control. Most lack the time and the inclination because the courts are too detached from everyday life. Attorneys have become isolated from the courts and judges as much as anyone else, even though many are in the courts on a regular basis. The courts could look to local bar associations as resources, but unfortunately, seem to be reluctant to do so. Courts could receive valuable comment and constructive criticism from lawyers who regularly practice before them, but do not appear actively to seek it. Perhaps a better relationship between the courts and the lawyers, through bar associations and other means, is the first step toward drawing the courts back into the community to which "justice" is dispensed.

My hope is that the isolation will begin to diminish through the efforts of judges, clerks, and attorneys alike. The Commentary to part A of Canon 5 of the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct states that "a judge should not become isolated from the society in which the judge lives." The same should be true for the courts.

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