Judge Richard Brown will be giving his gavel a rest, retiring from the Montrose Municipal Court bench April 15.
Brown spent decades on local courts and has presided over municipal court since his appointment in 2002.
“It made me pretty humble to see so many people in distressed situations and how tough of a time a lot of people have. A lot of them need a helping hand,” Brown said.
“At the same time, it’s distressing to see so many people who are so callous, so arrogant and insensitive to the pain and hurt they’ve caused other people. There’s no such thing as a victim-less crime.”
Brown came to town in 1972, then worked for a few years with John Overholser and Andy Slee at their law firm. Other attorneys talked him into applying for the Montrose County Court, to which Gov. Richard Lamm appointed Brown in 1975. Brown was appointed as a district judge in the early 1990s and retired from that in 2002, only to be appointed as municipal court judge for the City of Montrose that same year.
Since the position is part-time, between 2002-2018, Brown also worked in private practice mediation, handling about 1,200 cases and meeting attorneys from across the state.
Montrose attorney David Reed is among the many who know Brown; Reed began working with Overholser after Brown had left the practice, but came to know him through that connection.
“He may be going away, but he’ll never be forgotten. Dick is just the epitome of a fine gentleman, a fine attorney and a fine judge. I don’t think this community could have been better served. He’s done a lot of good for a lot of people,” Reed said.
Brown said he fell into the legal profession “by accident.”
“I grew up really poor. My dad died when I was a young boy. I was first in my family to go to college. I ended up majoring in math,” he recounted.
Brown began thinking he’d like to pursue dentistry, but could not afford further education in that field. Also, he joked, he “wasn’t smart enough” to teach math. But Brown had been in ROTC during college and the Army wanted him.
He inquired about law school and was given the go-ahead, but after a year of high expenses, he went into the Army, serving for three years. Brown was commissioned as a second lieutenant while in the ROTC program at the University of Nebraska and in the Army, attained the rank of captain.
He resumed law school at the University of Nebraska after his service. By attending school during summers, too, he graduated in about 2.5 years and sat his bar exam in Colorado before coming here to practice with Slee and Overholser.
Sitting on county, district and municipal courts gave Brown wide perspective.
Montrose County Court is a state court operating in Montrose County; district court is also a state court. Both county and district courts handle criminal and civil cases and district court mainly handles felonies.
Municipal court is different. Brown described it as “a people’s court, a grassroots court,” at which violations of municipal codes and ordinances — such as shoplifting, lower-level thefts, animal complaints and traffic — are handled.
“Those are matters of local concerns. They require a quick response. The design of municipal court is that cases can be tried, taken care of properly and quickly, without all the delay and expense involved in a county or district court,” Brown said.
Between 1,600 and 2,500 cases flow through Montrose Municipal Court per year. Although it handled a bit fewer cases last year because the pandemic initially halted in-person court, the municipal court continued to operate.
“The whole purpose of a municipal court is to take care of matters of local concern and to do it simply, fairly and expediently. It’s not designed to be a court where things are long and drawn out. It’s nice to be involved with people,” Brown said.
Dan Hotsenpiller, an attorney and former district attorney, has in his legal career appeared in Brown’s county, district and municipal courtrooms.
“He is an outstanding jurist and he has served us well in every capacity. The most important thing I think about Judge Brown is how he handles the kids in our community and how he serves the teenagers and their parents who appear before him,” Hotsenpiller said.
“He always takes time to explain things. He always takes the time to try to figure out why that particular juvenile is in trouble, what got them there and what might help make a difference so they’re not in front of him again, and certainly not in front of a district or county judge in the future.
“It’s the way courts should operate. They should operate on the human level where there’s a connection with the people involved in the process.”
Brown said he takes special pride in Teen Court. Although now on hiatus because of the pandemic, Teen Court is authorized under state law and functions under municipal court. Brown refers teens to this court after a plea deal or finding of guilty has been made in municipal court. In Teen Court, teen prosecutors, defense attorneys and juries conduct a trial, presenting and hearing evidence and mitigating factors. The jury decides the penalty for the defendant, based on defined parameters.
“That’s the sentence for the teen defendant in teen court. It’s a real sentence,” said Brown, who added he has been happy that most Teen Court defendants succeed thereafter, including by bringing up their grades and not missing school. Brown has seen that in turn boost troubled kids’ self-esteem and sense of pride.
“We’ve all done some dumb thing when we were younger. You need that second chance and sometimes, third chance, to make things right,” he said.
His time on the bench has given him “deep rooted” respect and appreciation for law enforcement, Brown also said. On the whole, the officers with whom he has dealt have been professional and dedicated.
“I see firsthand what they put up with, when they’re spit upon, the names they are called, the threats that are made on them and their families and the restraint that they use with people in spite of all that. I am walking away with a very deep appreciation and gratitude for law enforcement officers,” Brown said.
“We’re lucky here on the Western Slope. We have a tremendous sheriff’s office and a tremendous police department.”
Montrose City Council will work with human resources to find a new municipal court judge, Mayor Barbara Bynum said.
“As a community, we have been really lucky for the way he handles the municipal courtroom. What I saw was a judge who was fair as well as compassionate. He is leaving some very big shoes to fill. Council wishes him the best in his retirement and thanks him for all of his hard work,” Bynum said.
Brown said he first tried to retire in 2018, but was talked out of it. Now, he said, the time has come.
“It’s been nice to be part of the community for 45 years. I’m just grateful to have been part of the community. But it’s time,” he said.
He envisions more fishing and outdoor recreation and said he’ll take time to enjoy life.
“I know I’ve been blessed and I am grateful for it. I hope we can solve some of the differences and get back to a United States of America,” Brown said.
Reed doesn’t anticipate Brown falling idle — although, he said, his friend might be able to improve his basketball game.
“Even though he may be leaving the bench, he’s not leaving the community. I wish him well,” said Reed.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.