Trinidad: Get to know your judge |

Trinidad: Get to know your judge

Pro Bono Publico
Matthew Laurel Trinidad

It is said that a good lawyer knows the law, but that a great lawyer knows the judge. In an effort to level the playing field, this month’s column is devoted to getting to know John Neiley, who was recently appointed to serve as District Court Judge for Garfield, Rio Blanco and Pitkin counties.

Q: Why did you apply to be a judge?

A: I am attracted to the intellectual challenge that being a judge entails, the public service aspect, and the belief that good judges perform an absolutely essential function in a free society.

Q: Identify one or two “best practices” that you want attorneys who appear before you to scrupulously observe.

A: Candor — to the court, opposing counsel and the client. In a smaller community people learn right away whether your word can be trusted. This permeates every part of a lawyer’s practice, not just litigation. It is also mandatory to be well-prepared before you enter the courtroom.

Q: Describe a memorable case that you worked on as an attorney.

A: The really memorable cases are the ones where I made mistakes. Will Rogers’ adage holds true for me: “Good judgment comes from experience and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” I had a few trials early on in my career where Judge Ruckriegle was presiding. He was ruthless on attorneys who were unprepared and would not hesitate to point that out. I learned very quickly how important it is to review a file in its entirety before you ever step foot in the courtroom. “Preparation is salvation” has been my motto since then.

Q: What is the most important quality in a trial attorney?

A: Being prepared and knowing the case inside and out. You can be the best orator in the world, but cases are won by attorneys who know the details. I also admire brevity.

(Editorial aside: a lawyer who knows this judge will get to the point, be trustworthy and prepared.)

Q: When will you require alternative dispute resolution (i.e. mediation) in connection with your case management?

A: ADR will be required in virtually every civil case. As a trial lawyer I was able to successfully mediate well over half of my cases. The parties need to get into a mediation setting early on, before attorneys’ fees and extensive discovery make the parties harden their position.

Q: Describe a judicial temperament that you consider to be important?

A: A judge needs to be patient and attentive as a matter of simple courtesy. Litigants are involved in a complicated and expensive process. The one thing they want is a chance to tell their story and have someone decide the case after hearing all the evidence. In any trial it is critical that the parties have a chance be heard.

Q: Will you now use a gavel when adjudicating a dispute between your children?

A: What makes you think I didn’t use one on my kids before now?

Q: What’s your favorite legal drama?

A: I don’t enjoy legal dramas — they are too much like work or otherwise too unrealistic. My kids have a hard time when I am shouting, “Object, you moron!” at the TV.

Q: What was the most challenging question that you were asked in the interviewing process?

A: Perhaps the toughest question to answer was, considering my background, how would I handle cases that involved highly emotional or brutal facts — acrimonious custody battles, sexual assaults, child abuse and the like — basically, could I put aside emotion and still be impartial and fair? Dealing with cases like that is still an unknown for me, but I will do my best to adhere to the law and be fair. I don’t think being a judge means that you have to remove the human component from a decision. I am sure that Bill Gates and his engineers could come up with a software package that analyzes the facts and the statutes in a particular case, processes the applicable case law, and spits out a decision. We would probably save a lot of time and money with that program, but I doubt anyone would want to be judged by a computer. We have judges making tough decisions because we want someone with knowledge, practical experience, and hopefully some compassion looking at the whole picture. It’s a challenge I look forward to.

Matthew Laurel Trinidad is a transactional attorney at Karp Neu Hanlon PC. His practice emphasizes business law, estate planning and probate. Contact him at, (970) 945-2261, or visit

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