Suppose a lawyer represents his client in a highly contested divorce hearing in Natrona County District Court. After arguing the case, he walks across the street to Casper Municipal Court, dons judges’ robes and takes his seat on the bench.
A few weeks later, a man enters the judge’s courtroom on a DUI charge. He realizes the judge who will decide his fate is also the attorney who represented his wife in the divorce hearing. Will the divorcee feel like he received a fair hearing?
City Councilman Dallas Laird thinks not.
Laird is not alone. He, along with Casper’s mayor, the county’s top prosecutor and a prominent local defense attorney are asking for changes to Casper Municipal Court, arguing the existing situation could give the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The municipal court handles violations of city law, including public intoxication citations, some drunk driving cases and contested parking tickets. The court does not hear felonies. Other misdemeanor cases are heard in Natrona County Circuit Court and felonies are handled in Natrona County District Court — where municipal judges are free to work as private attorneys.
Laird said he is concerned that Casper’s part-time municipal court judges are able to work in private law practices on the side. The judge might listen to a police officer’s testimony in municipal court and enter Natrona County Circuit Court as a lawyer to cross-examine the same officer.
Although Laird said he does not believe judges conduct themselves in an improper manner, he thinks practicing as an attorney in one court and sitting as a judge in another court may raise eyebrows.
“I don’t think that it’s unethical, I just don’t like the procedure,” Laird said. “I want people to go into court and feel like they got a fair hearing, a fair shake.”
None of the municipal court judges agreed to speak with the Star-Tribune for this story. When asked about the possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest, municipal court manager Fleur Tremel said “I never thought about it like that.”
She compared the municipal court judges to federal magistrates, who also are free to work in law outside of their appointments.
Judges have been known to recuse themselves from cases in municipal court. Tremel didn’t know how often that had occurred. But that hasn’t quelled the concerns of the lawyers and council members.
A City Council work meeting on the matter is tentatively set for Jan. 9.
District Attorney Michael Blonigen wrote a letter dated Nov. 20 to City Manager Carter Napier, which broadly decries the use of part-time judges in the criminal justice system. Blonigen wrote that hiring judges part-time means they will seek outside work, undermining confidence in the municipal court.
“Especially if a private criminal practice is retained,” Blonigen wrote. “It creates an impression that outcomes may be based on considerations other than the law and facts.”
Blonigen stated that hiring part-time judges “necessarily” means those judges will take other legal legal work.
Casper’s municipal judges make about $54,000 a year, according to the city’s human resources department. Substitute judges are paid $80 an hour.
The prosecutor called for judges to be seated on a full-time basis, in order to avoid “the appearance of impropriety.”
“The municipal court is often the only judicial experience a citizen will ever have,” the letter states. “Confidence in that system is best established by prosecutors and judges who have made their duties a full-time obligation.”
Blonigen did not respond to request for comment for this story.
Ian Sandefer, a criminal defense lawyer who practices locally, wrote a Nov. 8 letter to Casper City Council mainly focused on the municipal court’s alcohol-offense docket. The letter pertains in large part to fixed punishments meted out to defendants on the docket, which is known colloquially as “alcohol court.” Among Sandefer’s suggestions for the docket is a request for a full-time judge. The specialized docket is currently governed by one judge who works part-time.
Sandefer wrote that a full-time judge would be “insulated from politics and would have some independence on the bench.” Sandefer does not specify why such insulation is necessary.
Sandefer did not respond to request for comment for this story.
How it’s done elsewhere
In Rock Springs, meanwhile, the municipal judge is free to work in private practice, but Richard Beckwith, Rock Springs city attorney, said it is accepted practice to not do so in the city. The full-time municipal judge has enough to do, Beckwith said.
“Working full time for the city means you work full time for the city,” he said.
Beckwith went on to say that he did not see an issue with part-time judges in Casper working in private law practice.
“I don’t see how that’s a problem,” he said. “You can certainly easily avoid the conflicts if you’re mindful ... You just have to recuse yourself.”
Of Cheyenne’s two judges, one works for the city full time and one handles the juvenile docket on a part-time basis. Silvia Hackl, Cheyenne’s city attorney, said neither judge works elsewhere, as that is prohibited by the city.
Wyoming Statutes spell out the qualifying requirements for municipal judges in 27 words, requiring only that judges be appointed by the city council and be eligible to vote in Wyoming. Otherwise, qualifications are left up to city ordinance.
Casper’s two judges work a month at a time, switching out every month. A substitute, or provisional, judge steps in to cover cases in the case of a full-time judge’s “absence, inability or disqualification,” according to city ordinance. If a judge is on vacation or determines that he or she has a conflict of interest, the substitute will take the bench.
A third judge works solely on cases for alcohol court, also on a part-time basis.
Two of the judges, Rob Hand and Nichole Collier, did not respond to request for comment.
Keith Nachbar, the alcohol court judge, declined to comment.
City Manager Carter Napier said he was weighing the advantages and disadvantages of switching to a full-time judge. He said it was unclear to him what the financial impact of such a move would be, but that it would likely cost the city more money than it is spending now.
As part of that calculation, Napier said he would like to keep a substitute judge to cover for conflicts of interest and vacation time. Covering a relatively homogeneous docket full time might be emotionally weary for a judge, making a back-up essentially.
“With one judge,” Napier said, “you could run into the notion of burning a judge out.”
Mayor Kenyne Humphrey said she’s doubtful a full-time judge would end up costing the city more than three part-time judges.
Either way, it’s worth it, she said.
“Can we really put a price tag on justice?”