Remembering Richard Matsch, Badass Judge With Courage of His Convictions

Judge Richard Matsch was among the most powerful jurists in Colorado for decades.
Judge Richard Matsch was among the most powerful jurists in Colorado for decades. CBS4
Judge Richard Matsch, who died on May 26 at the age of 88, is best known for having overseen the Oklahoma City bombing trial of Timothy McVeigh. But that's only part of his legacy. Matsch, who served as chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Colorado from 1994 to 2000 and remained on the bench until earlier this year under senior status, was one of the most powerful jurists in the state for decades, as evidenced by his frequent mentions in Westword.

Look no further than a story posted earlier today about a $750,000 federal settlement in the case of Alec Arapahoe, a gay inmate who was brutally assaulted in a Colorado penitentiary after being placed in the same cell as someone who had previously threatened him. We first reported about the matter in January, when Arapahoe's attorney, David Lane, filed a motion with Matsch prompted by fears that the temporary federal shutdown would delay the case. Lane was hopeful that Matsch would rule in his favor because he'd issued a warning to the feds in an unrelated case, letting them know that he had no problem ruling against future delay requests — a typically tough-minded stance for a man who was not to be bullied.

Many of Matsch's appearances in Westword were connected to the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. In 1996, for instance, Matsch was asked by members of the Rocky Flats grand jury to be released from their oath of secrecy so that they could talk about their objections to a deal between the Department of Justice and the operators of the shuttered plant. Even though excerpts from their secret report had appeared in the September 29, 1992, issue of Westword and a redacted version was issued the following January, Matsch never gave his blessing.

Matsch seldom spoke to the press, but he made an exception in 1999, when he consented to an interview by reporter Alan Prendergast for "Bench Pressed," which discussed the number of cases federal judges were expected to handle.

click to enlarge Timothy McVeigh during an interview with 60 Minutes. - CBS VIA YOUTUBE
Timothy McVeigh during an interview with 60 Minutes.
CBS via YouTube
"When a judge focuses on a case, he can't be thinking he has to get rid of it because he has 400 more," Matsch said at the time. "It's like dealing with a broken arm in triage. You can't let yourself be distracted from doing a good job on a given case because all these others are waiting and you can hear the groans from the hallway. A judge has to maintain a certain discipline."

As Prendergast noted, Matsch spent nearly two years presiding over the trials of McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols, and his performance was widely praised for preventing a media circus. But during that time, his caseload was shifted to other judges in Denver and Wyoming, causing an already unwieldy system to be even more overloaded.

In the years that followed, Matsch did all he could to pick up the slack, ruling in many of the most significant controversies in Colorado. Westword also covered Matsch rulings related to the constitutionality of an Aurora anti-porn law, a 2001 Mercury spill by the Newmont Mining Company, Jeffco gadfly Mike Zinna, a lawsuit over foul smells emanating from a RiNo dog treat factory and inmate Mark Ellis, who claimed to have been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.

Among the most contentious of Matsch's rulings in recent years was his conclusion that Colorado's sex-offender registry violated the due-process rights of three plaintiffs — a decision that prompted Montrose County to take its registry offline for fear that making it available might lead to future litigation.

This call may seem surprising, considering that Matsch was nobody's idea of a screaming liberal; note that he was appointed to the federal bench by President Richard Nixon way back in 1974. But he had the courage of his convictions, and that earned him the respect of colleagues whether they agreed with him or not.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts