Retired judge still doing what he loves |

Retired judge still doing what he loves

Pete Fowler
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Chad Spangler Post Independent

CARBONDALE, Colorado ” After more than 40 years of public service, retired Chief District Judge Tom Ossola is still doing what he loves.

Only now it’s on his own terms and at a pace that leaves a lot more time for things like family, travel and golf. Ossola, 65, now does arbitration and mediation and fills in for other judges 60 days of the year through the state’s senior judge program.

“I always thought that being a judge was the highest and purest form of the practice of law,” he said.

Judges are focused entirely on what the law is and aren’t driven by producing a result for a client’s interests. At the end of the day, it’s the judge who determines what the law really is. It’s no easy task with laws being constantly changed and new ones created each year, plus rulings on appeal that set new precedents. Judges’ decisions can have far-reaching effects on what happens to things like large amounts of money or even someone’s freedom.

Criminal sentencing is one of the most difficult responsibilities a judge has, Ossola said. He found a friend’s description of it to be very apt: It’s like taking a little piece of your gut out each time you sentence someone.

“You’re looking someone in the eye and you’re denying them their liberty, usually for a significant period of time, and you want to be correct,” Ossola said. “You don’t do it lightly.”

Ossola worked with juvenile cases throughout his career and actively made it a part of his work. He said one of the most rewarding things about being a judge were those “rare, warm moments” when he was able to see a juvenile come into the legal system in a state of crisis and leave to do well in life years later.

Ethical obligations of being a judge require them and their families to limit certain public activities. They walk a fine line between being a public official and remaining impartial and avoiding any political affiliations.

When Gunsmoke was on the radio before hitting television, Ossola remembers the intro saying being the Sheriff in Dodge City is a job that makes a person watchful and lonely. He joked that it’s not entirely unlike being a judge.

Judges and their spouses can’t do things like run for a school board, raise funds or speak publicly about local issues.

“For me it was part of the job,” Ossola said, adding his wife Bernadette forwent a great deal of those kinds of activities in support of him.

Bernadette joked, “And it drove the kids bonkers.”

Born in Canon City and raised in La Junta, Ossola’s career in public service began when he was drafted in 1967. He graduated from the University of Colorado and served in the Air Force until 1971 rather than serving in the Army. From 1972 to 1975 he served as a foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras. That was just after he and Bernadette married. Preparation for the job began little more than a week after the marriage.

“My wife and I had a honeymoon of 20 weeks of intensive Spanish training at the Foreign Services Institute in Washington,” Ossola joked.

He’s also worked as a deputy district attorney and public defender. He and Bernadette moved to Glenwood in 1975 to raise their children in a community they liked in the U.S. rather than Honduras. Ossola maintained a general law practice in Glenwood and was appointed as a Garfield County Court Judge in 1976. In 1980, he became a 9th Judicial District Judge. He was appointed the district’s Chief Judge and Water Judge for Water Division Five in 1990 and retired in 2004.

Ossola said it was probably nothing more than the times he grew up in that drew him toward serving the public.

“I came of political age during the Kennedy years at a time when it was thought public service was one of the highest callings someone could choose,” he said. “I still happen to believe it’s one of the highest callings.”

Contact Pete Fowler: 384-9121

Post Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO

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