Justices choose seasoned manager for troubled judicial district

How Judge Don Quick became the next chief judge of the 17th Judicial District

Michael Karlik and Liam Adams
Colorado Politics and Colorado Community Media ladams@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/21/20

When Don Quick answered the phone on Dec. 11, he had no idea it was for an interview to lead the troubled 17th Judicial District with the current and incoming chief justices of the Colorado Supreme …

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Justices choose seasoned manager for troubled judicial district

How Judge Don Quick became the next chief judge of the 17th Judicial District


When Don Quick answered the phone on Dec. 11, he had no idea it was for an interview to lead the troubled 17th Judicial District with the current and incoming chief justices of the Colorado Supreme Court.

“What they told me — why they wanted to talk to me — is that I had a lot of support both with judges and nonjudicial staff,” said Quick, a district court judge in Adams and Broomfield counties. As of Jan. 23, Quick will become the chief judge of the judicial district, following the retirement of his predecessor only a year and a half into her tenure.

Quick believed he was merely serving as a reference for another, more senior, judge under consideration. But when that judge turned the job down, Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats and Justice Brian D. Boatright, who will become chief justice next month upon Coats' retirement, turned to a man with years of management experience.

“When the chief justice calls you up and asks you to do something, if you can, you do it,” Quick said.

Throughout the fall, multiple news outlets reported on allegations of retaliation, politicization of the judicial retention process and even a coverup of pornography found on a government laptop in the 17th Judicial District. Chief Judge Emily E. Anderson, who was a central figure in some of the strife over the non-retention of Judge Tomee Crespin, announced her retirement from the bench on Dec. 7. She had assumed the top role just 19 months prior.

According to Quick, the climate within the courthouse and public accusations of misconduct were something he brought up with the justices.

“That came from me,” he said. “What I want to do is have people that trust each other and work together. … That goal of having a climate where people work together, to me, that's the right thing at this time.”

Stanley L. Garnett, a former district attorney of Boulder County who served at the same time as Quick, cautioned that even if they were inclined toward reform, chief judges are not the supervisor of any individual judge. In the 17th Judicial District, the position appoints key executive personnel, assists in financial duties and oversees the business of the court. As such, Quick's entreaties for unity may be limited.

“One of the problems with chief judge is that you don't have any actual authority. The judges don't work for you. You can't punish them,” he said.

Nonetheless, “I assume the chief justice was watching [the reports of misconduct] pretty closely and in the event of a vacancy there, had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do,” Garnett added.

According to those who know Quick from his work as a former district attorney and chief deputy attorney general, that prior experience made him the ideal choice, even though he is not the most senior judge.

“I do think that he will be a unifying figure,” said Brian Mason, the incoming district attorney. “Certainly I have read the stories that have been in the news media over the last several months and it's clear that it's time for everyone to come together. And I hope that Judge Quick will succeed in bringing people together.”

Ken Salazar, who as Colorado's attorney general made Quick his deputy, called Quick a problem-solver with an inclusive leadership style.

“He has the heart of a public servant. He didn't look for the job when I asked him to come and join me, but I already knew that he had a stellar reputation, so I recruited him,” said Salazar, who went on to become a Democratic U.S. senator and Cabinet secretary.

A hastened appointment

And yet, while those who spoke to Colorado Politics and Colorado Community Media felt positively about Quick, the process by which the justices selected him differed from Anderson's 2019 selection. Done in little more than one week and without consulting one of the previous contenders for the job, the changing of the guard in the 17th Judicial District demonstrates how informal and varied the protocols are.

The state constitution gives the chief justice the sole discretion to select a chief judge, but offers no detail about the process.

“Sometimes it was very quick because there was a consensus candidate,” said former Chief Justice Michael L. Bender, who retired in 2014.

Mary Mullarkey, who served as chief justice for 12 years prior to Bender, said she was occasionally the subject of lobbying. If she felt the consensus candidate of judges and staff was the wrong person to lead, she would choose another.

“It's political. Not in the partisan sense, but in how people interact,” she said.

Quick's appointment was different from Anderson's in 2019. That time, there was a more open application process for judges to express interest in the position or support for colleagues. The two contenders for the seat were Anderson and Judge Katherine R. Delgado, the longest-serving district judge. Coats ultimately chose Anderson.

“I don't think it's typical, but it's not surprising either,” said Bender of the method.

This time, Coats and Boatright made multiple calls. One was to another district court judge to ask that person if they wanted the position, Quick said. That judge declined, though. Then they called Quick. He was aware of the interest in the other judge, so he thought the justices’ call was about his colleague.

“It came as a surprise to me,” Quick said.

The ensuing conversation was about Quick's vision for the 17th Judicial District. “That was one of the things the chief justices talked to me about was my management experience and how to move things in a different direction,” he said.

Though Quick said the justices' questions were more general, the open conflict in the 17th affected their final decision. In an email announcing Quick's appointment to staff and judges in the judicial district, sent one day before notifying the public, Coats wrote: “The 17th has faced internal challenges on top of a pandemic and significant budget restrictions.”

Delgado did not receive a call from the chief justices before they made a decision, several sources familiar with the situation have confirmed. They were likely aware of her interest from the 2019 appointment.

Coats explained in his Dec. 15 email, “For those of you that were around when I selected Judge Anderson as Chief, I asked all judges and staff in the district to provide feedback on the candidates for chief judge. That feedback has not been forgotten, and I don't believe that repeating that process now would be beneficial in making my selection.”

Bypassing Delgado was surprising to some.

“I am extremely surprised and somewhat baffled” that Delgado was not considered, said Christopher Decker, former president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. “Judge Delgado has the experience, judicial temperament, knowledge of the law, and existing relationships with other judges to have been the presumptive appointment, if not the consensus choice.”

Coats and Boatright declined to comment on the selection, as did Delgado.

“Didn't ruffle a lot of feathers”

Quick worked for the state attorney general's office from 1999 through 2005. Following the Columbine High School shooting, Gov. Bill Owens created a commission to review law enforcement's handling of the situation and the factors that could have prevented the tragedy. Quick was one of the commission members.

“He had to work under really difficult circumstances with the district attorneys of several judicial districts and the sheriff's office,” recalled Salazar, Quick's boss at the time.

Quick estimated that he oversaw roughly 300 employees in the attorney general's office. In 2005, Quick became the district attorney of the 17th Judicial District, with over 100 employees. Shortly after he reached his term limit, he was the Democratic candidate for attorney general in 2014.

“When Don Quick ran for AG, he ran a campaign that didn't ruffle a lot of feathers — which ultimately served to benefit him in the long run,” said Daniel Aschkinasi, a Democratic political consultant. Following his loss, Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed Quick as a district court judge. Since mid-2019, Quick has been stationed in the Broomfield courthouse.

Of the current chief judge, Quick declined to offer criticism.

“I think Judge Anderson has worked very hard and she's a good person, but I think we can have increased communications within the office,” he said. “Office climate makes a huge difference.”

Anderson said in an email that Quick was one of the judges she alerted to her retirement before the public announcement. However, "I was not involved in the process to appoint the new chief judge,” she said.

Quick said he intends to hold in-person meetings with five to six people at a time, asking how they would like things to change and how to improve collaboration.

“I wasn't in the Adams courthouse for the last year and a half, but obviously from some of the stories that we've seen,” he acknowledged, “this could be an area of improvement.”

Quick is aware of the realities he is walking into, such as vacancies on the bench, internal tension and external pressure. The scrutiny of the Judicial District will also continue, with Coats warning in his email to court personnel: “Moving forward, Justice Boatright will pay close attention to what's happening in your district.”

Yet, Quick does not see those challenges as insurmountable. “I don't have those kinds of umbrella agendas about trying to change things,” he said. “What I want is to have people that trust each other and work together. It seems like a fairly easy thing.”


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