County Judge William (Bill) Alderton recently retired after more than 30 years on the bench in Chaffee County. He was busy cleaning out his office, full of many books, files and mementos recently when he graciously agreed to talk with Ark Valley Voice and go over some of his memories about his tenure on the bench.
In those more than three decades he’s seen the full spectrum of situations you might expect from the bench; from tragic to humorous. And he commented on what he’s learned about the qualities it takes to be a good judge, including patience and empathy.
“You’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to be patient … there are times, I admit, when I lose my patience,” said Alderton. “Mostly it’s with people who … should know better, like lawyers,” he quipped.
He remembers in the not-so-distant past, telling one young attorney, “Please don’t insult me with that argument.”
His judicial appointment here came in July of 1990. When he first started, the courtrooms were located where the current Chaffee County Commissioner Board meeting rooms are located now, separated with a movable partition.
His tenure has been a successful one; with the Eleventh Judicial Commission on Judicial Performance ranking him above average in all categories in reviews and noting:
“Judge Alderton’s fairness, respect for all parties and courtroom efficiency were observed by all of the Commission members. Judge Alderton’s preparedness and accommodating attitude were noted strengths,” the commission review stated.
Alderton earned his undergraduate degree from Whitman College in 1971 and later a law degree from Creighton Law School in 1974. After practicing law in Colorado Springs for a time, he also served in the District Attorney offices in Salida and Cortez, CO.
His replacement on the bench will be Diana C. Bull, with extensive criminal case experience, who was appointed by Governor Jared Polis last fall.
Mentors that Shape a Judge
Alderton talked about some of his mentors in the legal profession. “One of the people that had a pretty good influence on my life was a D.A. I worked with down in Cortez…I was only there a year and a half, but he was a very good lawyer and a very good person.”
He discussed the propensity of some people to seemingly always be in trouble, and to never seem to learn their lesson after multiple criminal charges and cases. Alderton remembered an observation by D.A. George Buck: “… Some people are just bound and determined to do a life sentence; on the installment plan.”
He also recalls a comment by Ed Slaughter, who used to be a public defender, a district court judge, and later a U.S. Magistrate (now retired). At one point Slaughter commented to him about changing the attitude of younger defendants saying; “If we can get somebody to about age 30 without sending them to prison, they’re probably going to be fine.”
Alderton recalls dealing with defendants who, at sentencing, instead of accepting a probationary period (perhaps with conditions) ask for a jail term.
Alderton said one of his ‘unreasonable’ ways of approaching things was with just such defendants. “Somebody says, ‘I don’t want to do probation judge, just give me a jail sentence so I can be done with you all.’ and I say, that’s fine; the maximum sentence I can give you, is X, and that’s what you’re going to get. That often changes minds.”
“I’ve probably done that more times than I can count,” he said. “I’ve had maybe five people who still decided ‘no, I’m going to sit out the jail term, rather than do that.’”
Judges often see defendants disgruntled with their situation, even at times directing hatred toward them. AVV asked Alderton if he’d ever been threatened.
“Yes, a few times,” he said. But never directly to his face. He added that there have been phone threats. He has had a concealed weapon permit since doing airline security in the past.
“For the most part what a county judge does is criminal cases,” he said, And the criminal docket just flows, he said despite what might be a large stack of case files awaiting him.
“My caseload is so repetitive, you could get bored with it if you didn’t realize it’s important to the people.”
Advice to Those Appearing Before the Judge
Asked if he has any advice to attorneys and/or defendants on appearing in front of a judge, he said, “It amazes me that behavior your parents would slap down – and you know damn good and well your parents would slap it down — I’ll see in the courtroom. you just shake your head and go; ‘how do you think there’s an upside for you with this behavior?’”
He said judges are reluctant to charge contempt of court unless the behavior really goes over the line. “But I have a couple times,” he added.
After decades on the bench hearing criminal and small claim civil cases he has seen his share, of course, of repeat offenders.
“We’ve seen generations of the same family from time to time,” he said, “and it’s frustrating to watch.”
Alderton sees the impact of drugs in a lot of the crime cases he’s seen. “That was always there; but NOWHERE to the extent that it is today,” he added.
When he was with the D.A.’s office, he said there were a few cases where drugs like heroin were involved, but sadly, it regularly turns up today.
As to the most tragic cases, Alderton said when he was in the D.A.’s office, he saw serious crimes of course, and for a time often dealt with Dependency and Neglect (D&N;) often saw cases in which Social Services is trying to remove a child from a home.
“They’re always a tragedy,” he said. “It may be the tragedy of not thinking, it may be the tragedy of drugs.”
On the other side of the judicial coin, one of his most humorous cases, he recalls, came in small claims court, when a woman sued her hairdresser over a botched cut and perm. The plaintiff had to have a couple of inches of hair taken off by another hairdresser as a result. The case, he recalls, took about an hour and a half, with three different hairdressers called to the witness chair.
In testimony, he recalls, “the emotions were just way over the top, and I’m sitting here as a judge, as a guy, I’m sitting here just shaking my head. Over a haircut?”
But Small Claims Court he observed, does frequently come with high emotions.
“The court system can’t help you; the court system monetizes everything. When the person runs into your car, and injures you grievously, nobody can give you back all the pain and suffering you’ve been through. Nobody can give you back the loss of the use of your leg if you’ve lost the use of your leg, or whatever it is. We can monetize it, but nobody’s ever going to resolve that grievance if you’re still harboring it.”
Empathy is obviously important for a judge. He expressed it this way: “What you’re trying to do is to give people a fair shake,” he said. That, tied with the patience to let people try to prove what the facts are, “And, remembering what the law is, come up with a fair result.”
“I like interacting with people and have not liked doing court over Zoom,” he said, “I think it’s important to interact with people.”
“The goal of the criminal justice system is not to collect money and punish people. The goal of the criminal justice system is to change behavior,” he also observed.
Speeding tickets are an example: If you aren’t able to plea bargain fewer points being taken on your license, your insurance company may raise your rates, or worse.
He said one of his biggest frustrations is the cost of the legal system.
“Lawyers are perceived as, and largely are, too expensive,” he said, “so we have a lot of people doing it on their own, and they are extremely frustrated … because they may have the right side of the case if you’re looking at it from the big picture, but they’ve got it wrong…they don’t know how to argue it, they don’t have the right documents…”
Landlord/tenant cases are one glaring example, he said. The landlord knows he’s out his rent, but doesn’t know the procedure laid out in the statute that you have to go through.
“Our landlord/tenant statute is poorly written; lawyers hate it, judges hate it, the parties hate it, but nobody has the political resources to fix it,” he said.
His post-judgeship future? “If I wanted to go be a lawyer I could, but I really don’t want to.”
He has been the attorney for the Buena Vista Sanitation District for 15 years and will probably maintain that position, but he isn’t looking to practice law.
Alderton and his wife Pat, are comfortable on their ranch property just outside of town, where they keep multiple horses along with chickens and dogs and cats. They are obvious animal lovers.
One of their dogs, Koa, they found abandoned along a road while visiting Hawaii, and decided to rescue him. With the help of a local animal shelter, they purchased a crate and eventually got their new rescue dog flown back to the U.S.
Pat also fosters pregnant dogs taken off the Navajo reservation and finds homes for the puppies and mothers.
After this long career, Bill Alderton undoubtedly will have enough to keep him busy in retirement.