Archuleta County commissioners have filed a petition with the Colorado Supreme Court seeking a mandate that would require all court proceedings to return to the Archuleta County Courthouse.
The 56-page petition was filed last week on behalf of the citizens of Archuleta County, said Commissioner Steve Wadley.
“It is a hardship for people to travel 120 miles round-trip to seek justice,” he said. “The courts need to operate in Archuleta County.”
The 6th Judicial District vacated the Archuleta County Courthouse in September citing health concerns. Chief District Judge Jeffrey Wilson ordered all courthouse proceedings be moved to the La Plata County Courthouse after multiple employees in the courthouse reported health problems.
Two sheriff’s deputies passed out inside the building, and three deputies were admitted to intensive care units.
An environmental study paid for by the judicial branch found air-quality levels to be within acceptable standards, but it recommended employees avoid returning to the building after complaints of eye irritation, sinus issues, coughing and fatigue.
Archuleta County contracted a separate air-quality test that found no hazards inside the courthouse, declaring the facility safe to occupy in October.
The 6th Judicial District and county commissioners have been at odds over the location of judicial operations for months.
On Wednesday, Wadley accused Wilson and the courts of not being transparent and refusing to provide adequate evidence of hazardous conditions in the courthouse.
“We believe there are suitable quarters for them to operate in, and there are no scientific findings that say the building is unfit,” he said. “It has been tested and continues to be monitored. We realize the building is not state-of-the-art, but we offered to do what we could to make them more comfortable.”
Wadley said Wilson refused to comply and threatened the county with litigation.
“Wilson said there was nothing we could do to have them return to that building,” he said.
Wilson declined to comment for this story.
The Archuleta County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, Treasurer’s Office and Assessor’s Office remain in the building abandoned by the courts.
Limited court functions have returned to Pagosa Springs in Cascade Plaza, said Jon Sarché, spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Department.
The Colorado Judicial Department is leasing the space to provide probation services and access to the court clerk.
“Down the road, we might be able to offer some limited courtroom activities such as video appearances,” Sarché said. “So there are some court functions operating in Archuleta County.”
Sarché declined to comment about the petition filed by Archuleta County commissioners.
Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The petition argues that county commissioners have statutory authority to determine appropriate space for the judiciary, and the judicial department’s order to vacate represents a violation of the separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
The woes in Archuleta County’s buildings started in April 2015 after a flood closed the county jail, requiring inmates to travel 60 miles to Durango for incarceration at La Plata County Jail.
Archuleta County’s jail remains closed, and prisoners continue to be shuttled back and forth between Pagosa Springs and Durango.
County commissioners see the petition as a last-ditch effort to rectify the situation after a steady breakdown in communication.
“They haven’t been communicating with us,” Wadley said. “We are trying to build new facilities for the jail, Sheriff’s Office and the courts, but it will take time and we need them to return. I don’t know why the judges feel they should be treated at a higher standard than other elected officials.”