If David West had a choice, he’d laugh.
Not in the courtroom, of course, where he has worked for 32 years as a magistrate with the U.S. District Court in Durango. Judges, lawyers and friends agree: He’s a stern, fair and, at times, funny Southwest Colorado federal adjudicator.
“When you’re not in the courtroom, you can have some good laughs,” West said.
West, 71, will leave his position as a part-time magistrate judge at the end of the year – a decades-long judgeship that began with the 1982 inception of a federal court in Southwest Colorado. As a U.S. magistrate, West heard a plethora of cases assigned to him by district court judges, ranging from disputes over federal law to federal criminal cases. West also had jurisdiction to hear federal crimes that took place within the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.
Before West started in 1982, there was no federal judicial presence in Southwest Colorado.
His position will be filled by Assistant U.S. Attorney James M. Candelaria, who was selected in September to fill the vacancy. Efforts to reach Candelaria were unsuccessful Friday.
Of the thousands of cases West has heard over the years, the first one still stands out, he said. It was just a day after he accepted the job with the U.S. District Court when West said he received a call from The Wall Street Journal. Then The New York Times called. A group in Silverton was charged with extortion for threatening to blow up an Exxon oil refinery in Houston, he said.
“It all went downhill from there,” he joked.
Furiously fairIn the 30-plus years he has been on the bench, West’s cases varied drastically. From civil disagreements to racketeering charges, he has pretty much seen it all. And through all those hearings, all those arguments and all those sentencings, West said he tried to stay even-keeled no matter the situation.
“Every case that comes in here is very important,” he said. “There’s no grading of one’s important, one’s not important.”
West’s attention to fairness was always noticeable in his courtroom, said La Plata County Judge Dondi Osborne, who practiced as a prosecutor for almost a decade in front of West. He is “uncommon in his commonality,” Osborne said, because of the way he interacted with defendants, victims and plaintiffs with compassion and candor.
“He truly wanted to see defendants succeed and would just talk to them and try to get them to the place where they could succeed,” she said. “You see that, and you want to be like that, but not everybody could pull it off the way Dave West could.”
Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Todd Norvell, who also practiced as a prosecutor in front of West before becoming a judge almost two years ago, said West has always been professional, thoughtful and sympathetic.
“I think he cares,” Norvell said. “I think he cares about what happens, about following the law, about being fair to people to get things right, to do the right thing.”
West said this is his philosophy.
“What that boils down to is fairness, and that’s exactly what justice means.” West said. “It’s that simple and that complicated.”
Bobby Duthie, a law partner with Duthie Savastano Brungard, said he has learned a lot about sincerity in the years he has known West. The court will be losing decades of experience with his departure, Duthie said.
“He’s a remarkable magistrate, and more importantly, he has really brought the Denver federal judiciary down to Southwest Colorado to much more understand the very difficult issues at Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Utes,” Duthie said.
A representative for Southwest ColoradoWest has been an advocate for Southwest Colorado, Norvell said. He has done a lot to maintain a federal judicial presence in this part of the state – something that particularly impacts members of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, the only Native American tribes in Colorado. Before opening a federal courtroom in Durango, tribal members and others had to travel to Denver to seek justice. West said that was “absurd.”
“All of these cases should occur in the general location of where the alleged crime occurred, not 360 miles and three mountain passes away,” West said.
The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes have been neglected by the federal agency charged with assisting them, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he said. There is a lack of law enforcement that is an “absolute disservice” to the Native American tribes. It is something he has worked for years to change to no avail.
Norvell said West has been a relentless advocate for tribal communities.
“Dave’s had a big role in advocating for the federal presence down here, so folks who live in Southwest Colorado don’t have to travel to what he calls the ‘district of Denver,’ so they can be heard here from juries of this area in more comfortable surroundings,” he said.
A man of characterWhile West is in a position of authority where it is likely change will come if he orders it, he is not presumptuous, said Pat Murphy, a decades-long friend.
“He’s not impressed with his position,” Murphy said. “I’m sure he’s proud, but he doesn’t think that it puts him in any different light than anyone else.”
Murphy said West is unassuming with a great sense of humor, which he described as “exceptional” and “subtle, short of dark.”
The two have had a running joke for decades: Murphy owns a car dealership where West has purchased his vehicles since the two have known each other. West is not a tall man, Murphy said, and he has done some “gigging” about it. Murphy had blocks put on the pedals of a truck West had purchased. West once bought a vehicle that had a step stool tied to the steering column, Murphy said.
“He’s got a swan on the hood of his truck that I have moved from one truck to the other for 25 years,” Murphy said. “He thinks it’s great. That swan has been on I don’t know how many vehicles.”
West says he’s not retiring; he’s quitting. That’s because he has a beer distributorship in Colorado Springs that he plans to continue running.
“I’m probably two weeks away from assisted living,” he said, “but I’m not going there just yet.”