Former D.A. gets comfortable on the bench

Moffat County defendants are seeing a new face on the bench when they appear in the 14th Judicial District Court now that Judge Paul R. McLimans is presiding over criminal cases.

McLimans was appointed as a 14th Judicial District judge Jan. 3, 2003, after 11 years as the district attorney for Moffat, Routt and Grand counties. But he did not take the bench immediately because of budget constraints.

"It was a delay driven 100 percent by a lack of funding," said Evan Herman, the judicial administrator for Colorado's 14th Judicial District.

Judges across Colorado had to wait to take the bench because of a state budget crisis, Herman said.

McLimans began working as a judge in March.

Even then, he worked mostly civil cases.

Defendants who were charged by McLimans the district attorney would not be too excited to see the same man decide the case, McLimans said.

"In most of the cases, I was not personally involved. Nonetheless, the charging documents have my name on them," McLimans said.

Such delays are common any time a district attorney is appointed to a judgeship in the same district, Herman said.

If the same person prosecutes and judges a case, "It creates the appearance of a conflict of interest," Herman said.

It wasn't until this month that McLimans began working on criminal cases. By now, most of the cases initiated by McLimans have moved through the system. Some of the cases remain on the docket, though many are just probation violations or other peripheral issues not directly related to the original charges.

Since he started working criminal cases this month, McLimans said he's seen perhaps 20 to 25 defendants whose cases are old enough to present at least a possible conflict. In every case, he gives the defendant the opportunity to have a different judge. He distributes a document to defendants explaining that he was the district attorney when their cases were filed. The document informs defendants that McLimans can be disqualified if the defendant wishes.

So far, only one defendant has asked for a new judge, McLimans said.

"If they object, I'll disqualify myself," McLimans said.

During his first year as a judge, McLimans worked mostly civil cases. Michael O'Hara, the chief judge of the 14th Judicial District, handled criminal cases in all three counties.

County judges in the three counties helped out, too.

"The district court caseload is just too big for two judges to handle," Herman said. "Our county court judges are all licensed attorneys and excellent judges."

Now, McLimans helps split up the criminal caseload. O'Hara covers the majority of the cases in Routt County, where he lives.

"I handle most of the cases in Grand and Moffat," said McLimans, who lives in Hot Sulphur Springs in Grand County. "I get to travel the 112-some miles to come here with some regularity."

As a result, O'Hara travels a lot less, and McLimans doesn't work very often in Routt County.

Attorneys are adjusting to the new arrangement as well.

"Judge McLimans' expectations are pretty high," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Waite. "You want to go into his court prepared. From what I've seen, he's very meticulous, very careful and very intelligent."

In a sense, all judges are similar because they all have to cover the same basic legal steps that are a part of the judicial system, such as advising defendants of their rights. Judges just have different styles, Waite said.

"One thing I like that Judge McLimans does is he has defendants stand at the podium," Waite said.

It happens when the judge sentences a defendant, or takes a plea. Both are serious, many times irreversible, stages in a criminal proceeding. McLimans asks defendants to stand, facing him, behind a wooden lectern in the center of the courtroom.

"It kind of adds to the seriousness of the proceedings," Waite said. "It's something we haven't had judges do in the past."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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