By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"The Court repeatedly chastised defense counsel Lisabeth Castle for having to take up matters...after she had spent all morning with other hearings," Castle wrote, asking Hufnagel to recuse herself. "Defense counsel believes that the Court was making reference to the confrontation with her husband Mr. James Castle and is unfairly impeding the defense for actions taken by her husband." Hufnagel refused to disqualify herself from hearing the assault case, but a hung jury produced a mistrial. The case was subsequently assigned to another judge.
Some litigants in civil cases say that the judge can also display her animosity through inaction, refusing to rule on a crucial motion or even a judgment for months, despite her much-touted reputation for efficiency. She kept local private eye Robert "Pete" Peterson twisting in the wind for more than fifteen months after his bench trial before finding him guilty of trespass and invading the privacy of an oilman he was hired to investigate, assessing damages in excess of $120,000. The case is currently on appeal, and Peterson has become one of Hufnagel's most outspoken critics--"I hate her guts," he says simply.
Attorney David Mintz recalls a curious conversation with the judge in the course of representing a woman injured in an auto accident. "In chambers, Judge Hufnagel let me know that the last 20 to 25 accident cases in her courtroom had all been defense verdicts," Mintz says. "She couldn't understand why the plaintiffs kept losing in her courtroom. I had my own ideas why that might be so, but since we were in the middle of trial, I didn't think it was appropriate to comment."
Much to Mintz's surprise, the jury found in his client's favor, awarding over $100,000 for her injuries. But Hufnagel refused to enter the judgment until the two sides resolved a dispute over a $7,000 award for future medical expenses. "I considered what she was doing as putting pressure on us to go to the defense and cut some deal," Mintz says. "Our client was really poor, really hurt, and needed the money desperately, but we didn't think there was any basis in law to reduce the verdict."
Six months later the defendant's insurance company called him and asked him to pick up a check for the full amount; Mintz assumes the company didn't want to leave the clock ticking on the interest on the judgment, regardless of the court's inaction. Court records indicate that Hufnagel signed the judgment only after the attorneys sought to file a document indicating that the amount had already been paid to the defendant.
A glacial judicial process was also at work when the Colorado Chiropractic Association went to court to challenge the state's new workers' compensation law in 1992. At the conclusion of the two-day bench trial, Hufnagel acknowledged that the case raised important constitutional issues and indicated that she'd try to reach a decision in a matter of weeks. Over the next two years, chiropractors' attorney Tom Overton sent several letters to the court respectfully requesting a ruling or at least a status conference, to no avail.
By the time a decision was finally rendered, in favor of the state, more than 26 months had passed since trial, and circumstances had changed so significantly that Overton's clients decided not to appeal. "The Court apologizes for the delay in issuing this opinion," Hufnagel wrote tersely, offering no further explanation.
"We did everything possible to encourage a quick ruling," Overton says now. "Everybody wanted a ruling, including the attorney general's office. Had we got a quick one, we would have taken it up on appeal, but other cases beat us there."
Justice delayed may have amounted to justice denied in the divorce case of a local attorney, too. Hufnagel acquired the protracted case in the spring of 1991, during her stint on the domestic bench. The attorney's cancer-ridden wife died in August of that year. Hufnagel awarded her $80,000 in maintenance and attorney's fees the following summer. In 1994 the Colorado Court of Appeals threw out the award, reasoning that you can't award alimony and fees to the dearly departed.
In other civil cases, Hufnagel has demonstrated a penchant for sealing files from public view--although she's choosy about which litigants deserve such treatment. For example, she has denied the requests of some male lawyers to keep their divorce cases private, even quipping that attorneys don't like to have the public know how little, rather than how much, they make; but she has readily sealed the divorce files of certain well-connected Denverites at the parties' request, including the divorce of city attorney Dan Muse and that of her colleague Judge Armatas. Last year she even sealed the terms of settlement in a condemnation case involving a substantial portion of the land the city acquired for Denver International Airport, on the grounds that the seller's right to privacy outweighed the public's interest in knowing what the city was paying for DIA land.
Secrecy has also been an issue in some of Hufnagel's criminal cases. Last May nineteen-year-old Robert Gurle, a three-time felon with a long juvenile record, was facing anywhere from 10 to 32 years for pulling a gun on a state trooper during a traffic stop. On the day of sentencing, much of Hufnagel's docket had been transferred to another courtroom because of an ongoing trial, but Tom Handley says that Hufnagel decided to keep the Gurle case in her court after conferring with the prosecutor--while Gurle's attorney, who happened to be Handley, was waiting in the other courtroom for the case to be called.