It’s rare to see an acting district judge appear as a defendant in court, so when it happens, as it did Tuesday, it’s worth noting the gravity of the proceedings.
Everyone involved knows what’s at stake — nothing less than the integrity of the judicial system itself. The judiciary has to have the respect of the people it presides over. Its power is derived exclusively from its credibility, which gives it legitimacy.
As we’ve opined in the past, an independent judiciary as a co-equal branch of government was the most unique feature the framers of the Constitution threw into their recipe for self-rule. The judicial branch sits atop the legislative and executive branches as “the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution.”
The judicial branch’s power comes by design, not by an army or a treasury. If it loses its legitimacy — such that court orders are not respected and enforced by the executive branch — our constitutional republic could easily unravel.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that fragility when he took the rare step of rebuking President Trump last November. The president described a federal judge who had ruled against his asylum policy as “an Obama judge,” prompting Roberts to issue a statement:
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
“That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for,” Roberts said.
The judicial power of the United States is vested in one Supreme Court, but that power is suffused throughout federal and state courts. So when a judge is accused of breaking the law, the system’s integrity is on trial, too.
Twenty-First Judicial District Judge Lance Timbreza took his lumps in court Tuesday. He was facing charges of driving under the influence and careless driving in connection with a one-vehicle crash in June.
A special prosecutor from the Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s Office noted that Timbreza refused breath or blood-alcohol tests after his arrest. As a member of the criminal justice community — “where integrity is of significant importance” — Timbreza’s case is “a black mark for all of us in the profession,” the prosecutor said.
Judge Jonathan Pototsky, who normally sits on the Garfield County Court bench, was appointed by the Supreme Court of Colorado to hear the special case. He addressed Timbreza as “Judge” — out of “respect” for “the title that you have earned.”
“But you did violate the public trust,” Pototsky said.
Pototsky accepted Timbreza’s guilty plea to lesser charge of driving while ability impaired, saying he believed Timbreza had taken responsibility for his actions and was remorseful. Pototsky ordered the minimum sentence possible in the case — two days of jail time, which is suspended if Timbreza successfully completes one year of unsupervised probation. He also must complete 36 hours of public service, and pay a $200 fine plus additional court costs and fees.
We’re generally loath to comment on judgments or sentences handed down by judges because of our own high regard for the important but delicate role courts play in our constitutional republic.
Timbreza’s case reminds why Chief Justice Roberts said that judges “do their level best to do equal right to” whomever appears before them. They are clearly not perfect. Judges have biases, backgrounds and predispositions just like the rest of us. The difference is, they are aware of these failings and actively battle against them every day because if people view the courts as fixed in any way, the system will erode.
Thanks to the careful handling of this case by Colorado’s judicial branch, and especially Judge Pototsky, we feel Judge Timbreza can continue presiding over matters in this district with his credibility as a jurist intact.