I usually agree with Jared Polis, the Governor of Colorado, but his decision to appoint a non-lawyer to a county court post this year, while legal, was a bad one that denies real justice to hundreds or thousands of litigants a year. If he hadn't appointed this non-lawyer judge, Colorado would have been down to three and could have slowly reduced the number to zero as incumbent judges retired.
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.
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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. . . . 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.
From the Denver Post.