A Judge for the People: Nicole Rodarte
by Alicia McCommons
The ability to pay a fine becomes even more significant to someone who faces jail time for not paying. "I really wanted to represent poor people," said Judge Nicole Rodarte reflecting on her legal career.
Rodarte joined the Colorado State Public Defender’s office immediately after graduating from the University of Colorado School of Law. This path gave her insight into the "decisions people have to make based on financial situations."
"Poor people are at risk for making bad choices because of their life’s circumstances," she said. Rodarte recognizes that people "do not need to be defined by one bad act."
"She is the reason you do this kind of work," said Rodarte describing one of her more challenging clients, yet rewarding cases, from her private practice days. The client was addicted to heroin, lost her two children to social services, and had at least three cases pending in different jurisdictions. The client’s family had written her off and would not bond her out, so the client suffered the horrendous abrupt heroin withdrawal in custody.
That six months of custody, with no one visiting except the regular visits from her lawyer, Rodarte, set the client on the path to recovery. The client was eventually able to work herself out of the situation, remain drug free, get her children back, and get a customer service job. The client’s sister-in-law created a documentary style video of her recovery as a role model for other people. Rodarte said, "I really felt I helped somebody."
As a criminal defense trial attorney, Rodarte never hesitated to go out of her way to create good working relationships with the district attorneys. "They knew I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on them," said Rodarte. This trusting relationship, in addition to her documentation that backed up her defense theory, could provide enough information for the district attorney’s office to dismiss a case or make a reasonable offer.
A Family of Community Servants
Rodarte comes from a family of public servants, her father worked for the Denver Public School system and her mother for the City of Denver. Her mother received a "commemorative pin" from former Mayor Wellington Webb for her many years of dedicated service.
On that day of her mother’s celebration, Rodarte, who was attending undergraduate school at the University of Colorado at Denver at the time, walked across downtown to the ceremony being held in Denver’s City and County Building, and thought, "this is where I want to be someday." Rodarte’s courtroom is in that same building today.
Rodarte always wanted to be a lawyer and planned her college majors, Political Science and English, specifically for that purpose. In one class, Rodarte was inspired further by reading, In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action by Caroline Kennedy and Ellen Alderman. "Reading about a case, the personal story, the representation of the people and the Constitution ... it allowed you to become connected to a person," said Rodarte.
Rodarte has always been interested in community; a variety of her past work includes participating in student government in high school, mentoring disadvantaged students while in college, helping organize a Habitat for Humanity event, and planting trees one Arbor Day.
During this past July’s Cherry Creek Arts Festival, Rodarte ran in the Athleta Esprit de She 10K race, which partnered with Girls on the Run (a non-profit organization that uniquely combines training for a 3.1 mile run/walk event with self-esteem enhancing lessons that encourage healthy habits and an active lifestyle in 8–13-year-old girls).
On the Bench
In January of this year, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock swore Rodarte into her new role as Denver County Court Judge.
Rodarte is enjoying being on the bench. "It is very interesting, and the perception that some lawyers have of what judges are like is just so wrong; judges are very serious and committed to fairness," she said.
Referring to her current traffic court assignment, Rodarte is quick to point out that "this is one court that many of us might encounter, because we all drive."
Her current assignment, out of which she will eventually rotate, has allowed her to hear many pro se defendants. "They like to explain themselves ... apologize," said Rodarte. "Folks come in and are very honest," said Rodarte. She said, "It really is a ‘People’s Court.’"
Rodarte explained that her 15 years of experience as a lawyer is sufficient. "You get dog years as a public defender." Also, "having one foot in that younger world" helps her to "communicate with the youth better and to recognize that they are misperceived sometimes as being disrespectful," said Rodarte.
The human connection is important to her, and in the courtroom she "sees a side of people that most people won’t see."
Having compassion for people does not mean that she takes her job lightly. One teenager’s face turned from a smirk to fright after she told him she would have to "take a recess to figure out what type of juvenile detention center I could put him in." "His demeanor immediately changed." She was able to have a "frank and honest talk with the kid." He was able to share his abandonment issues with her, and she was able to "get it through to him that ‘you are worth something and that you have people here who care about you.’"
It sounds like this kind of extensive conversation would take an extraordinary amount of time with her full docket, but she said, "you’ll make the time when you need to."
Rodarte reminds anyone who may want to become a judge that your "reputation is so important, and the way you treat other people .... You are a representative of the judicial system as a whole; you’re not getting to the bench by faking that," she said.
Lawyers in Her Courtroom
Rodarte offers advice to lawyers who appear before her, "You need to show respect. Respect the victims, the defendant, the staff, everyone." "You can’t build relationships without trust. Be honest and genuinely concerned. Uphold integrity." "Treat everyone respectfully— the clerks, each other, the sheriffs; use manners, even if you disagree," she said.
There is a certain amount of "isolation that happens as a judge," Rodarte said. While being mindful of conflicts, of course, she tells lawyers, "don’t feel like you can’t stop by to say hello." She will "always take the time to remain in touch."
"I am committed to being the best judge I can be," said Rodarte. She wants to "be fair, treat people fairly, listen and let people know that this is a judge that is not going to ignore you."
On the day of the swearing in ceremony she told Mayor Hancock, I will be "making you proud of this decision." "I don’t want to let anyone down," said Rodarte.
Her file drawer, filled with client’s heartfelt words, might be proof that she has not let anyone down. "I have a file at home that has dozens of thank-you letters in it from clients, and when you’re feeling a little low, it’s good to bring those out," said Rodarte.
Welcome to the bench Judge Rodarte! D
Docket Committee member Alicia McCommons enjoyed meeting this fellow Colorado native, and the non-adversarial setting made it even more pleasant. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.