Judges and attorneys go back to school

Students hear cases during state's `Courts in the Community' outreach

Rock Canyon High School students listen as Colorado Court of Apeals baliff Matthew Skeen answers a question. To his left are attorneys Meredith Van Horn and assistant attorney general Jenny Campos, who presented cases at the school. Photo by Jane Reuter
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At first glance, the drama played out on the Rock Canyon High School stage April 11 might have been mistaken for a high school play.

But the judges attired in black robes, attorneys in dark suits and handlebar mustachioed bailiff were real — all part of the Colorado Court of Appeals' community outreach program, “Courts in the Community.” The program brings the judicial work typically conducted in downtown Denver courtrooms to Colorado high schools.

Hundreds of RCHS students watched three judges hear two separate cases and then followed that up with question-and-answer sessions with the judges and attorneys.

One case centered on a Parker tree farm's county-assigned tax status. The owner believes his property was improperly classified as residential, instead of its historic agricultural classification. The change increased the assessed value of the 34-acre Crowfoot Valley Road property by about $400,000, sharply increasing the owner's property taxes. Coyle maintains the use hasn't changed, and the property remains an active tree farm.

The second case involved an Adams County man seeking a review on his 77-year prison sentence stemming from charges that included stalking, intimidating a witness, assault and violating a protection order.

Students heard arguments on both sides and listened to questions from judges, but didn't hear their decision on either case; those can take weeks to render.

Students asked about careers in the judicial system, including cost of a law degree, workload and the availability of positions.

Attorney Jenny Campos, who works for the Colorado general attorney's office, said her law degree left her with more than $100,000 in debt, and urged students to avoid starting their careers with similar financial burdens.

Assistant county attorney Meredith Van Horn said workloads vary.

“If you work for a nice, big firm, you basically live there,” she said.

Another student asked the attorney what role their personal beliefs play in their work.

“I've represented innocent people, wrongfully convicted, so I don't make any personal judgments about the cases,” said defense attorney Normal Mueller. “I can have a client I might not like, and certainly a crime I might not like, but my job is to do that appeal and make sure there weren't any mistakes made.”

All three judges said their workload is heavy.

“I read about 3,000 to 4,000 pages a month,” said Judge Dennis Graham. “The writing is something that continues on a day-to-day basis. Each of us has to go through many graphs of proposed opinions.”

“A number of people told me the workload was like a fire hose that never got turned off,” Judge Michael Berger said. “That's turned out to be true.”

The somber morning ended with laughter when a student asked bailiff Matthew Skeen how long it takes him to style his moustache each day.

A straight-faced Skeen said he sometimes leaves his facial hair unstyled and natural, and then displayed the handlebar moustache wax he said he saves for use on special occasions like a high school visit.

Students gave the morning a unanimous positive verdict.

“I thought it was really cool to see the actual process,” said junior Robert Falk. “It's one of the things I've been looking into as a career.”

“We've been conducting community court appearances for almost 30 years now,” Judge Graham said. “Without fail, every judge says it's been highly rewarding.”