No longer will retiring Chief District Court Judge Claude W. Appel have to blast away at those pesky squirrels with an air rifle to keep the darn critters from invading his bird feeders. Judge Appel received a squirrel-proof bird feeder as one of his retirement gifts after serving 34 years on the bench of the Third Judicial District, which encompasses both Las Animas and Huerfano Counties at a retirement ceremony held on Tuesday, November 20 in the Las Animas County Courthouse.
Fellow District Court Judge Leslie J. Gerbracht told the crowd of well-wishers at the ceremony how nervous she was as a rookie lawyer appearing for the first time in Appel’s courtroom, but also how he put her at her ease, and when she was later appointed to serve on the bench, how he leaned over toward her and said, “You can call me Claude.” She spoke of her admiration for the colleague who helped her along the way.
“It was a long time before I felt comfortable calling him Claude, but now I call him my friend,” Judge Gerbracht said. “Sometimes the thought of retirement is really frightening, but it’s not so scary if you think about it this way. This is a time for you to do what you want to do, when you want to do it, where you want to do it and how you want to do it. I know that you and your wife, Michele, are going to have so many great adventures. Maybe you’ll try some new ones. Maybe you’ll send us pictures. I hope you will do so, so embrace your retirement and enjoy it.”
A native son of the San Luis Valley, he went to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He returned for law school at the University of Colorado – Boulder, and practiced law in Boulder for several years, but he said he felt something was missing. “I saw this ad for a Deputy District Attorney in the Third Judicial District. I interviewed with Luis Lopez Sr. I don’t know how many of you can remember Luis, but he was a real character. He said, “If you work up in Huerfano County, I’ll stay down here, and if I never hear anything bad about you, that’s great. If I ever hear from you that’s also not a great thing. So I managed a one-man office and this place has been really good to me.
“There have been very interesting times but this place has been very good to me.”
He served as County Court Judge in Huerfano County in 1985, and became a Chief District Judge one year later. He talked about his love for the law and the work he and other attorneys had done in service to the people. “I thought I would do that for a couple of years, but it turned into 34 years. I love it. I could keep doing it until I was term and age limited at age 72. Michele and I talked and at some point looked at the calendar and thought, ‘What else is there to do?’
“I love the work we get to do, not just as judges. I think a lot of it depends on where you are. I hope you all buy into and appreciate our mission. It’s really about doing the right thing, for me anyway. It’s a tough job because you can’t please everybody. You have to protect the public and you to keep the criminal element down.
“But we also, because of this terrible heroin and methamphetamine epidemic, we have to treat people with compassion. It’s an epic time in terms of case filings. They’re obviously going through the roof, but that’s emblematic of what’s going on in America, with the opioid epidemic and the meth use. I think a lot of people in this country aren’t happy because of these meth cases. We don’t catch people at their best, whether it’s civil case, a domestic relations case, a criminal case or a speeding case. They’re usually not happy to see us, right? Those of you on the front lines are the real heroes, whether it’s law enforcement or probation officers.”
It was critically important for everyone involved in the criminal justice system to keep their eyes on the mission at all times. “I really believe in the rule of law, and I think it’s really important that we respect the rule of law. The rule of law is not some kind of a sacrosanct, self-appointed policy. It just doesn’t continue unless people establish it as a goal and believe in it.”
He noted that people still obeyed court orders when they were served with them, indicating that faith in the judicial system was still strong. “At the end of the day, it’s respect. We have to, when we’re in this work, treat other people with respect even when though don’t seem to respect us. You have to treat people with respect to get it back. I have great respect for all the work that you do. It’s the greatest that I can imagine. The decisions we make aren’t just on a case-by-case basis. Next Wednesday I’ll be doing my last docket in Huerfano County. The things that we do, never, never stop learning. You always learn something new. I just adore the mission of the judicial branch and adore what we do. I want to thank you all for coming. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”