Opinion | Scott M. Estill: Two systems of justice
This week sees America again reckoning with gun violence and self-defense as two prominent trials wrap up. In Wisconsin and Georgia, juries will decide the fates of four men who are charged with homicide and have raised various defenses to argue that private citizens have the right to use violence to stop people who they believe are breaking the law.
Whatever the verdicts, at least these cases have gone through the required procedural steps prior to trial. The same cannot be said here in Summit County with the case of Chief Judge Mark Thompson.
A few months ago, Thompson was involved in an incident for which he was ultimately charged with one count of felony menacing. Fortunately, no one was injured as a result of this alleged threat with “an AR-15 style rifle.” If convicted, the judge could face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
This case would not warrant a commentary in most cases, but this is not most cases. The defendant is a sitting Colorado judge, and 5th Judicial District Attorney Heidi McCollum has determined that the public should not be advised of the details of the case. Indeed, McCollum’s office filed a motion to seal the records in this case. To no surprise, this motion was granted.
Why would the prosecutor in this case file a motion to seal the records? Would she do the same for you had it been you or a family member arrested for the same offense that Thompson is being charged? I think we all know the answer to this question.
Unfortunately, this case gives much ammunition to those who believe that the United States has two systems of justice: one for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us. Does anyone else think the judge received preferential treatment simply because of who he is and his position of power within the judiciary system?
The supposed reason for sealing the records is to protect the integrity of the case and to avoid jeopardizing the ongoing investigation. But a further reading of the motion lays out the real reason: to avoid any interference with the judge’s rights, including “irreversible harm to reputation, and the defendant’s and the people‘s right to a fair trial.” This is all well and good, but wouldn’t these same statements apply to any defendant arrested and charged with a crime in Summit County?
Take a hypothetical case of Mr. X, the owner of a local restaurant who was arrested and charged with threatening a neighbor with a semiautomatic rifle. Certainly, X would want to avoid any irreversible harm to his reputation (he might lose customers and be forced to close his business) and avoid the public exposure. In theory, and using the same reasoning as in Thompson’s case, the prosecutor would also want to seal the records to protect the integrity of the overall case. Yet, I would wish X good luck on his endeavors to seal his case, as I can almost certainly guarantee that the District Attorney’s Office would oppose this request.
For anyone investigated, arrested and subsequently charged with a crime in Summit County, a new option now appears: request an immediate seal of the case. The prosecutor’s office will surely support this request (hint of sarcasm here), as all defendants (not just Thompson) are entitled to a fair and impartial trial and to have the integrity of the case preserved.
Quite simply, there are two systems of justice here in Summit County. While the District Attorney’s Office is saying all the right things (the seal is temporary, the government is not trying to hide anything, etc.), it seems obvious to me that is not the case. This is a simple case of the District Attorney’s Office helping out a judge in ways that would not be available to average citizens. Had this case been treated like any other case, the allegations would have already become public, and the judge’s reputation would likely take a hit. Releasing this information would not jeopardize any investigation or otherwise impair the case. It would also not hinder the judge’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
But forget transparency. Prosecutors have to appear in court every day before one of six potential judges (including Thompson). Had the prosecutor treated this like any other case and ruffled some judicial feathers, the prosecution in future cases could be jeopardized by a judiciary bent on retaliation. So Thompson gets a break, and the public is left in the dark. Too bad for the rest of us.
Scott M. Estill’s column “Challenges, Choices, Changes” publishes biweekly on Thursdays in the Summit Daily News. Estill is an attorney, author and public speaker who lives in Dillon when not traveling or attending to legal matters in Denver. Contact him at email@example.com.
Scott M. Estill’s column “Challenges, Choices, Changes” publishes biweekly on Thursdays in the Summit Daily News. Estill is an attorney, author, and public speaker who lives in Dillon when not traveling or attending to legal matters in Denver. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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