Court employees critical of judge on leave

RIFLE — State court employees said Wednesday that a Garfield County judge now on indefinite leave made inappropriate comments in court and treated them in an intimidating manner.

Four court employees commented about county Judge Jason Jovanovich to the 9th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance, which is evaluating Jovanovich and several other judges as it prepares recommendations to voters on whether to retain them this fall.

“I don’t think that he demonstrates the qualities that we want to see from our judicial officers,” district administrator Solveig Olson told the commission in a meeting held in the courtroom where Jovanovich normally presides.

Jovanovich went on paid leave May 4, apparently as a result of concerns brought by clerk staff. That leave is not connected to the performance commission’s review. Any disciplinary investigations against Colorado judges are conducted by the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline.

Char Weigand, who has worked on court transcripts involving Jovanovich, told the commission she was “frankly just shocked by some of the things he said,” and by the tone of his comments.

Kathy Schouten, county clerk of court in Rifle, said she has heard Jovanovich say in hearings, “I’m more powerful than the president, I can order the death penalty, I’m at the top of the food chain.”

She said Jovanovich has said that “unless you’re a governor or a senator, you might as well stay out of my way,” and that he has spent time with undercover drug agents and knows “who to call.”

Without elaborating, Schouten said Jovanovich tried to have her arrested three years ago, but that she wasn’t speaking out in an attempt to retaliate.

Olson said court employees worry what might happen if they voice opinions on things.

“I think it’s an abuse of power. I think it’s very harmful to the staff,” she said.

Said Becky Ross, a judicial assistant in Rifle, “I feel like my job is threatened sometimes when I am in here.”

Schouten said Jovanovich once illegally handed out a 90-day sentence, finding a person in contempt after the person asked for jail time in lieu of a $145 fine for a seat belt violation.

She also said she has seen Jovanovich get so distracted recounting his own childhood during a sentencing that he forgot which case was before him.

But Rifle attorney Bill Schubert told the performance commission that in talking about his own life during sentencings, Jovanovich helps make a connection with defendants.

“I can tell you, almost without exception my clients walk out of this courtroom feeling like they got a fair shake,” he said.

Tia Drinkhouse said she has appeared in front of Jovanovich. “I feel that he treated me fairly and he went by the law, ” she said.


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