Judging the Judge

The young man in the tailored gray suit stands behind the defense table and waggles his finger at Judge R. Brooke Jackson. He's pretty full of himself, and he occasionally looks back at the gallery to see if his audience is equally impressed with his courtroom presence and vocabulary. Except for one man reading a Bible and several women attending to children, the people in the courtroom hang on every word.

Leroy Edward Valdez may look like -- may even sound like -- an attorney. But in fact, he's just an oft-convicted felon, and the chains of the belly band that will be used to secure his handcuffs when this hearing is over poke from beneath his suitcoat.

Valdez has been around enough lawyers to mimic their mannerisms, though, and he tries to lodge a few complaints this morning. His lawyers were incompetent. The judge never should have let the case get to a jury. And oh, by the way, he either wants the hearing to go forward immediately -- despite the fact that he just fired yet another public defender -- or he wants to be released on a personal recognizance bond. Otherwise, he tells the judge, he stands to lose a lot of money from an out-of-court settlement on an unrelated matter.

By this point, some judges would have told Valdez, a tenth-grade high school dropout who has convictions ranging from burglary to car theft to armed robbery on his record and whose hearing today concerns whether he will be categorized as a habitual offender, to sit down and shut up. But Jackson, whose courtroom is lined with paintings of flowers by first-graders from a Golden elementary school, listens patiently, allowing the jailhouse lawyer to have his say.

"I sometimes make mistakes," the judge finally concedes. "If so, it's up to the higher courts to correct them." But Valdez has already been convicted by a jury of several felonies, he notes, and will be spending a significant number of years in prison -- even more if he loses the current matter before the court.

So Jackson, almost pleading, urges Valdez to let him appoint another attorney to represent him. Or at the very least, appoint an attorney to act as an advisory counsel. The law is complicated, he points out, and lawyers are trained in such things as the proper way to cross-examine witnesses. "It's an art," the judge says.

Valdez shakes his head, smirking as he makes a show of arranging and rearranging the assorted notepads and papers on the defense table. "I tried the American way, and this is where it got me," he responds.

Jackson sighs. A highly paid and respected civil litigator with the firm of Holland & Hart for 26 years before his appointment to the Jefferson County District Court bench in October 1998, he is a firm believer in the usefulness of attorneys.

But Valdez insists on representing himself pro se. And so after reaffirming that the defendant understands his rights, Jackson relents. The case will not go forward this morning, however. The judge hopes that, given some time to think about it, Valdez will change his mind about that attorney.

Valdez angrily slams his notepads around. "Ethics, misconduct," he hisses at the prosecutor. "Read them their own law and they don't follow it," he complains to the deputy who places handcuffs on him.

Valdez isn't the first convicted man to whine that his lawyer burned him, that's he's innocent and that the prosecution, the cops, maybe even the judge, are corrupt. The Jeffco courts see thousands of them a year.

What makes this case different is an anonymous letter the judge received before the hearing. The message led off with a photocopied August 8 Denver Rocky Mountain News headline: "Judge wants to earn public's respect." The headline had originally run over a small article about Jackson's background and his reasons for leaving a lucrative law practice to become a jurist. But that story was only a sidebar to the main piece, whose headline had proclaimed, "Child's rapist gets break from judge."

Jackson's June 30 decision to reduce the original sentence he'd given 27-year-old Charles Brooks, who'd pleaded guilty to sexual assault on a twelve-year-old girl, had infuriated the child's father. He'd taken his complaints to the newspaper, and the result was an article that unleashed a torrent of denunciations aimed at the judge. Jackson received dozens of angry calls and letters; many more were published in the News. One woman even drove down from Loveland with her seven kids to picket the courthouse, holding signs that read: "Judge Judy or Judge Jackson?" (The Judge Judy box was checked.) More worrisome was the woman who appeared on the doorstep of the judge's home and confronted his wife.

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Steve Jackson