Steamboat Springs attorney gets judicial appointment

The 14th Judicial District's newest judge will also be the chief judge, the Colorado Judicial Branch wrote in a Friday news release.

Michael O'Hara, attorney with the Steamboat Springs firm Oliphant, Hammond, O'Hara & Atwell, will assume the role of chief judge for the district covering Moffat, Routt and Grand counties once sworn Dec. 30 by the man he's replacing, Judge Richard Doucette.

Doucette, currently the district's chief judge, announced his retirement earlier this year.

O'Hara was named to fill Doucette's post by Gov. Bill Owens, who picked the 44-year-old over Craig attorney Sandra Gardner and Steamboat Springs attorney Gary Engle.

O'Hara's appointment as chief judge comes as the governor weighs a replacement for Judge Joel Thompson and courts across Colorado brace for new budget cuts after a year which saw more than $90,000 in costs slashed for the 14th Judicial District.

Chief judges are responsible for appointing the district administrator, chief probation officers, and assist clerks of the court with personnel and financial issues, while helping with case management, according to the state judicial branch. A chief judge can also reassign district and county court judges to work specific cases when needed.

"It's going to be challenging," O'Hara said. "We're waiting every day to see how bad it's going to be."

The state Legislature's joint budget committee is expected to announce new cuts next month.

Court clerks were already ordered by the state to take three unpaid furlough days in October, November and January. Three legal assistance programs -- from facilitating out-of-court settlements to providing one-on-one legal advise to those unable to afford attorneys -- were gutted.

To date, no layoffs have been ordered.

"Part of the problem is the six percent in cuts the district has already made on its FY 2003 budget ending June 30," O'Hara said. "You have half a year to make that up, so it really translates into 12 percent to be made up. That's really scary."

Doucette, meanwhile, is among a group of Colorado judges who have opened their wallets for court clerk staff. The judge recently calculated his annual salary over the period of unpaid leave taken by staff, and distributed the money to clerks across the 14th Judicial District.

"These are people who work with me and make my job easier," Doucette said. "My sense of it was we all ought to share the pain."

The state's constitution doesn't allow furlough for judges.

Some 500 jobs across state's judicial branch could be on the line in the next round of cuts, Doucette said.

"I'm not sure how many that would mean for us," he said.

Doucette's departure won't necessarily create a short-term judge shortage, O'Hara said.

Thompson will be replaced by Paul McLimans, 14th Judicial District Attorney, Engle or Steamboat Springs attorney J. Richard Tremaine.

Though retired, Doucette will fill in where needed as a "senior judge" next month until Thompson's replacement is named and up to speed.

"I've had six months to ease out of my practice," O'Hara said. "(Thompson's successor) will probably need at least the entire month of January."

Paul Shockley can be reached at 824-7031 or at pshockley@craigdailypress.com

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