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Judicial Branch

A Citizen in Trouble

by The Honorable Hunter Patrick

For a moment, wander into dreamland with me (but no napping, please). Imagine that you, Joe Citizen, are 17 years old. You have just consumed a six pack of Old Cowboy Beer, and a pint of Bayberry Brandy. In fact, you are stewed to the gills. Being the skilled driver that you are, however, you hop in your car and head down the street in your town in Wyoming. You forget to fasten your seatbelt, don’t have a valid driver’s license, much less liability insurance, and you go through a stop sign and a red light.

At that point you notice a local police officer right behind you, with his overhead lights flashing, but you keep going. The officer turns on his siren, and you keep going, faster and faster, until you lose control of your 1954 Packard and smash into a fire hydrant, doing considerable damage to your car and demolishing the fire hydrant. In your relaxed state, however, you are not hurt at all. As you are running, afoot now, the officer scarcely a step behind you, you trip over the curb and fall flat on your face (or something), and the officer is handcuffing you. Off to jail you go–in Cody–where you are also informed that your dog, which has no license, was picked up by a city officer during the night several blocks from your home.

The next morning you wake up with a hangover, but sober as a judge. An officer tells you that a couple of charges are being filed against you:

1. Under age drinking

2. Driving under the influence

3. Failure to use seatbelts

4. Driving without a drivers license

5. Driving without liability insurance

6. Failure to stop for a stop sign

7. Failure to stop for a red light

8. Reckless driving

9. Leaving the scene of an accident

10. Leash law violation

11. And unlicensed dog

(All of which are misdemeanors)

And

12. Interference with an officer and

13. Destruction of public property valued at more than $500

(Both of which are felonies.)

"But not to worry," you tell yourself. "I can beat this rap, because the cop forgot to advise me of my rights, and I refused to take a Breathalyzer test. Besides, I will just have my old man call the judge and tell him to drop these charges, and if the judge knows what’s good for him, they will be dropped–and fast!" 

Before you read any further, how much do you really know about the judicial branch of government in Wyoming? What court or courts would you go to for each of the above charges? Who are the judges in those courts? How are they selected? Can Joe’s father call or write to the judge about the case? And, on the other hand, can the officer (or anyone else) pay a friendly little visit to the judge and demand that Joe be thrown in jail for a long, long time? What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor? Try writing down brief answers to these questions, and we will get back to them. 

Some Do’s and Don’ts

Judges do not make arrests, decide what charges will be filed and prosecuted, draft documents for litigants in court, or investigate cases. Several anonymous letters have been received by a local judge during the past several months demanding that the judge bring charges against a person for an incident that happened in Park County. These are the tasks of law enforcement officers and prosecuting attorneys, not judges, and for good reason. The person who does these tasks is an advocate for one party in the case. The judge cannot advocate for either party, and cannot cater to the demands of anyone, no matter who it is or how important and influential that person may be. A judge’s calling is to be fair and impartial and to apply the law without regard to public clamor or the demands of individual citizens or other public officials.

Recently a legislator from another county called a local judge’s secretary to schedule a lunch appointment. They could not find a day when both the legislator and the judge could meet, and the legislator was obviously deeply disappointed. The secretary asked him why the meeting was so urgent, and he explained, "Well, I wanted to suggest to the judge how he might rule in a case coming up before him in my county." Sorry, legislator–judges don’t do that. This gets to the very heart of an independent judiciary, and it explains why, from the beginning, our state and federal governments were divided into three separate branches–the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary–each independent from the others. Of all people, any member of the state legislature should know that. 

The Wyoming Court System

The organization of our state judicial branch is not complicated. These are the courts we have and what they can do:

1. The Wyoming Supreme Court. This is the highest court in our state system. This Court’s main job is to review the decisions of the district courts and other tribunals in the state system, such as administrative agencies, to see whether their work was done properly within the law. This review is called an appeal; thus, the Supreme Court is called an appellate court.

There are five justices on our Supreme Court, and one of them serves as the Chief Justice. Can you name the five justices and the chief justice?

2. The District Courts. These courts are just below the Supreme Court in the hierarchy of the judicial branch in Wyoming. The district court is a general jurisdiction trial court. The main responsibilities of the district courts can be divided into three categories: (1) They have exclusive original jurisdiction to try all civil law suits involving more than $7,000.00, divorces, adoptions, criminal felonies, probate, condemnation actions, disputes over the title to real property, and numerous others. (2) The district courts also serve as the juvenile courts in Wyoming, and they have exclusive original jurisdiction to try all cases filed in juvenile court. (3) Decisions made in our limited jurisdiction courts--municipal courts and circuit courts--and rulings in administrative hearings, such as workers compensation cases, ordinarily must be appealed to the district court before they can be appealed to the supreme court; thus, district judges also have appellate jurisdiction over the limited jurisdiction courts and administrative agencies of the state. There are 17 district judges in Wyoming; however, Laramie County, Natrona County, and Sweetwater County were each provided an additional district judge by the state legislature this year, which will increase the number to 20.

There are two district judges for the entire Big Horn Basin, which encompasses the Fifth Judicial District. Can you name them?

3. Circuit Courts. The circuit court is the limited jurisdiction court in the judicial branch of our state government. This court has original (but not exclusive) jurisdiction to try misdemeanor criminal cases, exclusive original jurisdiction over civil suits involving $7,000 or less, and original jurisdiction over stalking, domestic violence and small claims cases. Felony criminal cases are initially filed in the circuit court, and the circuit judge has the responsibility of determining whether the state has enough evidence to justify sending the case on to the district court for trial.

Can you name the circuit court judge for Park County?

4. Municipal Courts. Municipal courts are not part of the state government. They constitute the judicial branch of the municipal government. Within our system, they have the same cloak of independence and the same responsibilities of fairness and impartiality that other judges have. These judges are also called police judges because municipal courts are limited to trying cases involving violations of municipal ordinances.

Can you name the municipal judges in Powell, Cody, and Meeteetse?

So, who are the judges? In the Supreme Court, currently the Chief Justice is the Honorable Larry Lehman and the other four Justices, in order of their seniority on the Court, are the Honorable Michael Golden, the Honorable William Hill, the Honorable Marilyn Kite and the Honorable Barton Voigt. In the Fifth Judicial District there are two district judges, the Honorable Hunter Patrick in Cody who sits in both Park and Big Horn Counties and the Honorable Gary Hartman in Worland who sits in Washakie, Hot Springs and Big Horn Counties. The circuit judge in Park County is the Honorable Bruce Waters. The municipal judges are Ed Webster in Cody, James Allison in Powell and J.W. Yetter in Meeteetse

Selection of Wyoming Judges and Term of Office 

Supreme court justices, district judges and circuit court judges are all selected the same way under our state Constitution. When there is a vacancy in one of these positions, those who are interested in the job submit a statement of interest to the Judicial Nominating Commission. This commission studies the applications, conducts interviews, and nominates three candidates to the governor. The governor must select one of the three nominees within thirty days. Each new judge selected in this manner must stand for retention in the next general election after his or her first year in office. If the judge is retained, then he or she must stand for retention on the election ballot again at the end of the term, which is eight years for supreme court justices, six years for district judges, and four years for circuit judges.

In a retention election the voters simply cast either a Yes (the judge should be retained) vote or a No (the judge should not be retained) vote. In order to be retained, the judge must get a Yes vote from more than 50% of those who voted on his retention. If a person votes in the election, but does not cast a vote either way on the question of retention of a judge, that vote does not count either way–contrary to common belief, it is neither a No vote nor a Yes vote. It is simply not a vote.

Municipal court judges are appointed by the mayor of the town or city. They are not elected, and they do not stand for retention. Ordinarily they serve a term of two years, but they serve at the pleasure of the mayor and city council.

The authority and the conduct of judges are limited by constitutional law, including both the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Wyoming. They are also limited by and must follow laws adopted by legislation at the federal, state, and municipal levels. They are also bound by common law when it has not been superceded by statute. Finally they are bound by several sets of procedural rules, establishing procedures for civil and criminal cases and appeals, rules of evidence, and the code of judicial ethics. All of these, especially the rules of ethics for judges and how they are enforced are all likely subjects for another day. 

You Can’t Lobby the Judge

Public opinion is not an element in the judicial process; consequently, it is completely contrary to our system of justice for anyone to attempt to lobby the judge about any case. The necessity of a fair and impartial judge is so simple and basic it was learned by most of us in government classes in grade school. Yet, when people find themselves or family members in court, they often try to assert outside pressures on the judge. This is such an extreme threat to our concept of a fair and impartial judge, that such attempts can be prosecuted as obstruction of justice, a felony under Wyoming law.

Recently in Mississippi a young black man went into a convenience store to buy some ice cream. He was not armed. He was not there to commit a crime. In the eyes of the owner of the store, however, he was danger personified–trouble waiting to happen. He told his customer, the young black man to get out. The customer did not understand and asked the owner why, assuring him that he was only there to buy something. The owner grabbed him from behind, by the back of his shirt collar and his belt, and helped him out–right through the closed glass door. The customer was seriously hurt. The customer was charged with destruction of property. The judge dismissed the case at the probable cause hearing. A massive campaign ensued against the judge when his reelection came up, and he lost. He was harshly criticized, taunted and ridiculed. He made the "mistake" of doing what judges are supposed to do. He lost because he dismissed a charge brought against a black man by a white man. Shocking? Yes. Wrong? Yes. The judge refused to be lobbied by influence peddlers. The consequence was that he lost his job.

The bottom line is simply that you cannot lobby the judge.

Back to the Quiz 

With the above information, it is now easy to answer the questions at the beginning of this article. Going back to the list of charges against Joe Citizen, Numbers 1-9 each could be charged in municipal court, circuit court, or juvenile court, because they are violations of both state law and municipal law. Numbers 10 and 11 could only be charged in municipal court, because they are only violations of municipal law. Numbers 12 and 13 would both initially be filed in circuit court or juvenile court. If they were filed in circuit court, upon finding probable cause, the judge would transfer them to district court for trial.