‘Tap your network’: Judicial branch, gov’s office offer advice for aspiring judges | Subscriber Content

The process of being appointed a judge in Colorado may not be political in a partisan sense, but it does push applicants to engage their networks into advocating on their behalf to those who have the power to shape the state’s judiciary.

“You need the support of people around you to get through the process. To me, it was almost uncomfortable having to reach out,” recalled the District Court Judge Lindsay VanGilder, a 2020 appointee of Gov. Jared Polis.

On Wednesday, VanGilder joined other judges, a representative of the governor’s office and a member of a judicial nominating commission at the Jefferson County courthouse to give an inside look at the process of becoming a trial judge in the First Judicial District, which encompasses Jefferson and Gilpin counties. The event, which was also streamed online, was in anticipation of an impending vacancy: District Court Judge Laura A. Tighe is scheduled to retire on March 1.

Applications to succeed her are due by the end of Friday.

“There is no question on there that asks what is your political affiliation or how are you registered to vote,” said Jenna Goldstein, Polis’ deputy legal counsel. “Politics is just not a part of the process.”

Trial judges, with the exception of Denver County Court, are initially appointed by the governor and subsequently retained by the voters. Each of the 22 judicial districts has a citizen-led nominating commission to screen candidates and recommend two or three finalists to the governor’s office.

Chief Judge Jeffrey R. Pilkington explained that the First Judicial District operates differently from some other neighboring jurisdictions, in that, with the exception of two specialized dockets, the district judges handle criminal, civil and domestic cases all at once, instead of rotating between subjects . A docket consists of approximately 225 cases per judge, of which 125 are criminal and the remainder are split between civil and domestic.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Pilkington

Chief Judge Jeffrey R. Pilkington of the First Judicial District speaks during a discussion on Jan. 4, 2023.

Last fiscal year, there were nearly 16,900 cases filed in the district, the fifth-highest number across all districts statewide.

“We are all generalists to some degree, meaning we do different things in those areas. But many of us were or become specialists over the years,” Pilkington said. He added that the district judges are collegial, being willing to cover for each other on certain cases. At the time he was speaking, “there are probably a handful of judges having lunch” together in the courthouse, which he called a daily occurrence.

Jeanie Vela, who sits on the judicial nominating commission, explained that traditionally, commissioners looked for candidates who lived in Jefferson or Gilpin counties at the time of their application. But recently, the Commission decided to “cast a wider net” for people who may live outside of the jurisdiction, but nonetheless have demonstrated a commitment to the First Judicial District.

“We want judges who know our community, know the challenges our community faces, and we want a judge who wants to be a judge in this district, not just a person who wants to be a judge somewhere,” she said.

It does not impress the commission, Vela added, to drop names politically-powerful figures as references, as a lawyer’s administrative assistant could shed more light on their workflow than an elected official. Vela also emphasized that candidates should be prepared to address the diversity they will bring to the bench.

Jeanie Vela

Jeanie Vela, a member of the First Judicial District’s nominating commission, speaks about judicial appointments during a discussion on Jan. 4, 2023.

“It’s not necessarily the color of your skin,” she said. Instead, a candidate could highlight their diversity through their answer to one of the commission’s questions: “If we decide not to send your name up to the governor’s office, what will the First Judicial District bench be missing out on?”

Once the commission makes its recommendation, the governor has 15 days to appoint a judge. Goldstein said the office schedules 30-minute interviews with the finalists near the end of that period, in order to make phone calls to the other judges in the district, the district attorney, the head public defender and other references the candidates include in their applications .

“We look at who’s currently on the bench, who’s leaving the bench. We look at the demographics in the district and in the county,” she explained. Goldstein said aspirants should carefully fill out their application, as it also represents their writing capabilities. The interview questions are “not really a secret,” but the governor’s office specifically focuses on candidates’ familiarity with the position and of the issues facing a given judicial district.

“We’re looking for understanding of the impact of bias, particularly implicit bias and prejudice on the bench,” she added.

Jenna Goldstein

Jenna Goldstein, deputy legal counsel to Gov. Jared Polis, speaks about judicial appointments during a discussion on Jan. 4, 2023.

Recognizing that some lawyers apply multiple times for a judgment before receiving an appointment, Goldstein suggested there is no need to drastically change an application or interview on subsequent tries.

“Still try to be yourself. Don’t feel like you need to manufacture some new reason why you want to be on the bench,” she said.

District Court Judge Diego Hunt, a 2016 appointee, advised applicants to talk to judges and practice their answer to the first question that will be asked in every interview: Why do you want to be a judge?

Judge Diego Hunt

District Court Judge Diego G. Hunt speaks during a discussion on Jan. 4, 2023 about a vacancy in the First Judicial District.

“Do tap your network,” he said, referring to professional contacts who can speak on a candidate’s behalf. “That gives the commission as well as the governor’s office more information than you would give them individually.”

VanGilder, who was a prosecutor before her appointment, said she contacted public defenders to ask for their support at the time. She also took time off from her job to observe courtroom proceedings.

“What is it going to feel like to be a litigant in your courtroom?” she said that candidates should ask themselves. “Thinking through how your background has influenced who you are and how you treat people is a really key piece to this.”

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