Riding the Circuit Into a New Century

Publication year1998
CitationVol. 27 No. 6 Pg. 77
27 Colo.Law. 77
Colorado Lawyer

1998, June, Pg. 77. Riding the Circuit into a New Century


Vol. 27, No. 6, Pg. 77

The Colorado Lawyer
June 1998
Vol. 27, No. 6 [Page 77]

Judges' Corner
Riding the Circuit into a New Century
by Steve Lass

Last month I was on the road fifteen out of twenty working days, drove nearly 2,000 miles, handled hundreds of cases and presided in three of the four courts in the Fifth Judicial District, which stretches across the Continental Divide from Idaho Springs to Eagle and from Heeney to Leadville.1 I think I'm tired

But this is not really new. Riding the circuit has a long and colorful history in the Colorado judiciary, and there are still a number of judges doing it in rural areas throughout the state today

Historical Background

When the Colorado Territory was established in 1861, President Lincoln appointed three Territorial Justices. The Territory was divided into three Districts. The First District included all of the territory east of the mountains, with court being held in Denver. The Second District included the entire northwestern quarter and held court in Central City. The Third District included the southwestern quarter, with court being held in Cañon City.2

When Colorado became a state in 1876, the Constitution created a Supreme Court with three Justices and four judicial districts, with only one judge for each district.3 Circuit riding in those days was not only common, it was an absolute necessity.

At the time of Colorado's First Legislative Assembly, the original boundaries of Summit County stretched due west all the way to the Utah border and north to Wyoming, encompassing what now includes six separate counties.4 In 1881, what is now the Fifth Judicial District included Lake, Summit and Pitkin Counties. In 1883 Eagle and Garfield Counties were added. In 1891 Garfield County was dropped,5 but in 1979 Clear Creek County was added to make up the current four-county district. The Fifth Judicial District now covers over 3,000 square miles, so all judges in the District still have to do at least some traveling.

Then and Now

According to the current schedule, I'm in three or four courts about one week or so each month. In the past, "Court Week" was quite an event. Colorado Supreme Court Justice and historian Wilbur Fisk Stone described his experience in the Third Judicial District of the Territory this way:

The Southern or Third Judicial District then included all the southern half of the Territory from the "Divide" to New Mexico, and from the western boundary of Kansas to the Utah line. Courts were held at Colorado City (later at Colorado Springs), Cañon City, Pueblo, Las Animas, Walsenburg, Trinidad, and over the mountains at San Luis de Culebra, Conejos, Del Norte, and across the Continental Divide at Silverton.

Over this vast region, larger than an average State, the lawyers with the judge and other officials, litigants, witnesses, Spanish interpreters and often prisoners for trial traveled from court to court in a motley caravan of wagons, ambulances, primitive buggies, horseback and muleback; over dusty, sage-brush mesas and mountain ranges, fording rivers; in heat, snow, wind and alkali dust; camping out nights where there were found "wood, water and grass"; fishing trout in the mountain streams, occasionally shooting an antelope, cooking their own "grub," smoking pipes round the campfires, singing songs, swapping lies, sleeping in blankets on the ground; then holding courts within rude adobe walls, attending Mexican fandangos at night-dances got up in honor of the Court and having more fun, legal and unlegal, than the Bench and Bar have ever seen since in the effeminate days of railroads and fine court houses.6

For some reason, I've never had quite the same reception when I show up for court.

In the past, just getting to court was a challenge. Riding the circuit was not a pastime, but a stern necessity. Some of the county seats were very remote, and nearly all the outlying hotels were more popular with bedbugs and body lice than with travelers, while the tables supplied a fare which made them forget all their other troubles. Towns like Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride, to quote from Judge Hallett, could be invaded only by mounting the hurricane deck of a mule.7

Judge Stone describes the trip to establish the first court in Silverton this way:

In the summer of 1875, Judge Hallett, after holding the courts in the San Luis Valley, went over the range and opened the first court...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT