In an average person’s life, their encounters with the court system will be infrequent, if at all. But when they do go to court, perhaps to dispute a speeding ticket, or because they were picked up for a DUI or public intoxication, they’ll likely stand before a municipal judge. And because of the current structure in Casper, the judge hearing their case could also be the attorney who represented their ex in a custody battle. And something about that doesn’t feel right.
Because the city employs municipal judges in a part-time capacity, the judges typically work as private attorneys as well. And we understand why they do. We can’t expect them to be fine with a part-time salary.
But the potential for a conflict of interest is obvious. To avoid this, the city of Casper needs to employ full-time municipal judges.
The justice system functions because we as citizens can participate in an open and transparent process. We trust that it will always be just, that decisions are made in the interest of justice alone. Let us be clear here: there is nothing to suggest any of our current judges have done anything wrong. But the possibility of a conflict of interest undermines our justice system.
And we aren’t the only ones who think so: Casper attorney and city councilman Dallas Laird has been openly critical of the current system and the impression of unfairness it might give. District Attorney Michael Blonigen and defense attorney Ian Sandefer have also asked City Council and City Manager Carter Napier to consider changing the current structure.
In Rock Springs, municipal judges are employed full-time, and though there’s no rule prohibiting them from also working in the private sector, it’s generally not accepted to do so. And the full-time work keeps them busy.
Cheyenne’s municipal judges are employed full- and part-time, but both are prohibited from working elsewhere, per city ordinance.
Casper would be wise to follow the models of both Rock Springs and Cheyenne. First, to prohibit municipal judges from working in private practice. Second, to simply employ them in a full-time capacity to avoid the need for secondary work. It’s important that when Casper citizens stand before the court, and before one of the municipal judges, they can trust that justice will be done. It’s important that they’re given no reason to suspect the legitimacy of the system.
These may be the only judges most people will encounter in their life. These are judges who are most likely to have a direct impact on the daily lives of Casper residents. That’s why the Casper City Council should employ full-time judges. Council members need to see to it that nothing this simple can undermine the justice system in our city, ensuring that everyone has a fair day in court.