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Colombia RPCV Steve Carter puts down the gavel as judge after 33 years
Colombia RPCV Steve Carter puts down the gavel as judge after 33 years
Judge Carter puts down gavel after 33 years
Kelley Cox photo. Judge Steve Carter, the longest serving county judge in the state, is retiring after 33 years on the bench. Carter, fresh out of law school, was appointed in 1972 by then-Gov. John Love.
After 33 years as Garfield County Judge in Rifle, Steve Carter will pound his gavel for the last time at the end of the month.
Carter, the longest serving county judge in the state, is retiring and looking forward to it.
“I’ve been doing this for a really long time,” Carter said. “It’s a wonderful job and I love it. But it’s time for someone else to do it. While I am still healthy, there are so many other things I’d like to do.”
Born in 1945, Carter grew up in Boulder, where he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and then a law degree from the Colorado University School of Law. Prior to that, he served in the Peace Corps. in Columbia, South America from 1967 to 1968.
Fresh out of law school, Carter was admitted to the Colorado Bar Association in 1971 and moved to Glenwood Springs that same year, where he worked for the law firm of Martin Dumont and as deputy district attorney for the Ninth Judicial District
“I told myself I would really like living in a small community,” he recalled. “Other (law school graduates) were getting jobs in Denver and with big corporations.”
He opened his own private practice in Rifle and applied for and was appointed as Garfield County Judge by then-Gov. John Love on July 1, 1972. Carter replaced former Garfield County Judge Gavin Litwiller, who was appointed as a Ninth Judicial District judge.
“It was exciting,” Carter said. “I was 27 years old and and I had no experience.” He also applied for and served as the Rifle Municipal Judge from 1972 to 1976.
At that time, Rifle City Hall was located in what is now the Rifle Creek Museum on Fourth Street.
Carter remembers the old courtroom facility which sat above the Rifle Fire Station.
“Every time the fire alarm went off, we had to completely stop court,” he said with a laugh. “Then the fire engine alarms would go off and the place was infested with bats. The bats would fly around every time the alarms went off and people would be running around screaming.”
However, at that time there wasn’t much going on in Rifle.
“I thought I’d made a big mistake,” Carter said. “Union Carbide shut down and then Safeway. The population in Rifle was 1,800 and everybody was leaving.”
The county caseload in those days was about 250 cases per year, compared to the 3,700 per year he hears now.
He also fondly remembers attending his first judge’s conference.
“There were all these old men and they thought I was the bell boy at the hotel,” Carter smiled. “At that time, I was 10 to 15 years younger than everybody and the youngest judge in the state.”
Until last May, Carter also served as a district court judge for six years hearing juvenile court cases.
“But I retired from that about a year ago,” he said.
Carter has seen a lot of changes and challenges in the judicial system over the years, in both the number of cases as well as the nature of the crimes. Things that weren’t illegal in those days are highly illegal now.
“Back then, drunk driving was a joke — it was sort of amusing, but not anything more,” Carter recalls. “Domestic violence was something the police didn’t get involved in.”
But that has changed drastically, along with caseloads.
“The biggest challenge was the explosion of the number of cases in the early 1980s when we were overwhelmed with oil shale workers,” Carter said. “We had transients, people out of luck and trouble-makers. It went from 1,500 to 4,000 cases almost overnight. Trying to keep up with it was a nightmare.”
But Carter was doing a good job and the voters re-elected him after every four-year term.
“The voters liked me and I liked the job,” he said with a smile. “That was the secret to my success.”
Learning to do his job as a judge took time and experience. Surprisingly, the position does not require that an applicant be an attorney. A high school diploma or GED is all that is required.
At first, Carter said he would lose sleep over wondering whether or not he’d made the right decision in a case.
“It took 10 years to figure it out,” Carter said. “You have to listen to what everyone has to tell you and make a decision about what you think is fair and right. But you have to do it and forget about it. I make mistakes — we all do. The first time a defendant committed suicide rather than come to court, it made me feel horrible. But eventually, I had to realize that I wasn’t responsible. What most judges find to be difficult is that somebody wins and somebody loses.”
The biggest court issue he sees is dealing with crimes related to alcoholism and drug abuse and the fact that the county doesn’t have the facilities to deal with the problems.
“We have a substantial number of alcohol- or drug-related cases and we can’t just throw them out or ignore them,” Carter said. “In Grand Junction or Denver, there would be a detox facility to deal with them. But we have no money. And with child or spousal abuse, we have no money for programs to prevent it. But the laws are still the same. And a substantial amount of people that we see are alcoholics. We know what it takes to overcome it, but we don’t have (the means to deal with it.)”
As a public figure, Carter has also had to get used to dealing with people in public places when he wasn’t on the job. It wasn’t unusual for the judge to be confronted with people in the grocery store who wanted to talk about their cases or his decisions.
“I’d be in Wal-Mart or City Market and people would come up and want to talk to me about their cases,” Carter said. “But with 3,700 cases a year, I can’t possibly remember everyone I’ve seen.”
Nevertheless, the interaction with people has been one of the highlights of his job as a county court judge.
“Out of 40 or 50 people (in the courtroom), there will be some who are bad, (repeat) offenders, five or six will never have been in trouble before and deserve a break and in the middle, some may have done something else in the past,” Carter said. “But I enjoy dealing with people on an individual basis. I listen to people tell their stories of their lives and it’s fascinating.”
The downside of the job is the number of hours, oftentimes late, that are required.
“It’s a 24/7 job,” Carter said. “There are phone calls at 3 a.m. from TRIDENT (Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Task Force) needing a search warrant. Or police officers needing to arrest someone. I won’t miss that.”
With a name that is shared with others in the state — “Stephen L. Carter” — he also won’t miss being mistaken for those who have the same name who have committed crimes. There have been incidences of other Stephen Carters who have been charged with DUI, drug dealing or foreclosure on their homes.
“About every six years there’s a rumor that comes up that I’ve been busted for pot or DUI or lost my house,” Carter said with a small laugh. “But I’ve never been arrested in my life. Me and my shady background.”
Other matching names include a black attorney in Denver, a realtor in Glenwood Springs and a young man in Rifle, of whom Carter jokes that he has paid several of his late video rental return fees.
With his retirement at the end of the month, Carter intends to continue working at his law firm, Carter & Sands, as well as coach soccer and enjoy his life in Rifle.
“This is a wonderful city to live in. I met my wife here, I raised my kids here and I’ve been a part of Rifle’s history”" he said. “Rifle is genuine and real, just like the people. A lot of people have come here and gone away and come back. I just can’t believe I was that intelligent when I was 27 years old to decide to put my roots down here and live.”
A committee from the Ninth Judicial District will review the applications for the county judge position and recommend three or four to the governor, who will then make an appointment to fill Carter’s place.
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