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TCL > July 2013 Issue > W. Terry Ruckriegle—Tested Trial Judge Takes on New Role

July 2013       Vol. 42, No. 7       Page  5
In and Around the Bar
Profile of 2013–14 CBA President

W. Terry Ruckriegle—Tested Trial Judge Takes on New Role
by Sara Crocker

About the Author

Sara Crocker is the communications specialist for the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations and is editor of The Docket, the official publication of the Denver Bar Association—(303) 824-5347, scrocker@cobar.org.


 
  W. Terry Ruckriegle,
2013–14 CBA President.
   

As a relatively new judge, Terry Ruckriegle was assigned a case involving a woman accused of murdering her husband. In 1987, it was the first time he had Colorado media request to have cameras in the courtroom.

His colleagues on the bench in other judicial districts advised him to let the media in. "A bigger case will come along some time where you will have to be facing all these issues, so do it now and learn what all the pros and cons are," Ruckriegle said, recalling the counsel of his peers.

In 2003, when Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault in Eagle County, he would find out just how right they were. Ruckriegle, then chief judge of the Fifth Judicial District, would preside over the case involving the L.A. Lakers shooting guard. It was complex for a number of reasons, most notably because of rape shield laws in effect and the frenzied media coverage.

"By that time, I had tried five or six cases where cameras were allowed in the courtroom and media people were there regularly and reporting on the case. But whatever I thought I knew was insignificant compared to all the issues we were going to have to deal with in Bryant," he said.

To manage the media and the public’s desire for constant information about the case, it was the first time in Colorado the court posted documents online the same day, providing unprecedented access to the proceedings. It was timely dissemination of information and alleviated the need to hire an estimated ten extra clerks to assemble, copy, and release filings in hard copy. But the online access also led to errors: The accuser’s name was mistakenly released three times. These were unfortunate missteps, Ruckriegle said, but it reinforced a lesson he learned as an Eagle Scout and would be taken back to again and again throughout his legal career: Be prepared.

"My biggest attraction about the law is that it’s a never-ending learning process. . . . You need to still keep doing your homework," he said. "It’s about skills that, until you’re in the fray of a case, you don’t know where the pitfalls are going to be."

Goals for the CBA

Ruckriegle, 65, is the 2013–14 CBA President. He is expected to bring to his role as the association’s leader the same thoughtful preparation and planning that has aided him in the practice of law and judgeship.

The Breckenridge-based mediator and senior judge plans to focus on issues relating to young lawyers, their employment challenges, and the financial burden they assume. Ruckriegle worked his way through law school at the University of Indiana–Indianapolis by taking weekend shifts at the law library. When he arrived in Colorado, he worked in private practice, taught paralegal courses, and studied for a master’s in law and society. He understands the costs—both financial and personal—that the legal profession can demand. During his term as CBA president, Ruckriegle wants to explore a loan forgiveness program that would allow new lawyers to work to pay down or erase their debt. Likewise, he wants to continue to provide and highlight practical continuing legal education courses and pro bono opportunities that offer hands-on, real-world applications of skills to help new attorneys ease into their first years of practice.

For Ruckriegle, it also is important to continue to support the programs he says make the CBA and its educational arm, CBA-CLE in Colorado, one of the strongest bar associations and best CLE entities in the country. Ruckriegle has served on the CBA-CLE Board for more than five years, the last two as president.

"I’m looking forward to having the opportunity of receiving the baton and continuing with a number of the valuable programs in the Colorado Bar Association," Ruckriegle said.

For example, Immediate Past President Mark Fogg put a strong emphasis on mentoring during his term. He worked with the bar and courts to develop a mentoring pilot project, which evolved into the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program, directed by former Denver Bar Association President John Baker.

"We are ahead of other states in the sense that we have a top-notch person appointed through the Colorado Supreme Court who is at the helm of the mentoring program," Ruckriegle said. "We’re way out front."

Bar–Bench Relations and Advancing Professionalism

As a senior judge, Ruckriegle hopes to further networking and educational opportunities between attorneys and jurists, which he calls "bar–bench relations," to improve these relationships and, in turn, advance professionalism. How attorneys interact with each other and their communities has been a hot topic among members during the past year, particularly with the launch of Legal Professionalism Month last October. Ruckriegle currently is involved with the Litigation Section of the American Bar Association’s Judicial Division and in the past participated in the CBA’s Judicial Liaison Section, both of which work to improve the judiciary and encourage strong bar–bench relations.

"I think Judge Ruckriegle will bring a national perspective that will be very beneficial and [have] a very impactful influence on the ability of the judiciary and the bar association to communicate," said Nineteenth Judicial District (J.D.) Administrator Karen Salaz.

Ruckriegle also wants members to continue to support and advance Colorado Lawyers for Colorado Veterans—a program founded by CBA members and headed by DBA President-Elect John Vaught, which provides veterans and their families access to attorneys at monthly events around the state. Involvement in one’s community, including performing pro bono services, is an important commitment to Ruckriegle, who served as a member of Empire’s town council for seven years, as well as participating on various nonprofit boards. During his travels to the local bar associations throughout the state, he hopes to encourage an ongoing discussion about pro bono and modest means representation, along with other goals and priorities.

A "Focused" Childhood

William Terry Ruckriegle was born and raised in Kokomo, Indiana, the son of a teacher and a seamstress. His father suffered from kidney disease and passed away when Ruckriegle was 11. As a teen, he became "focused, driven, compulsed" to find himself. It led to interests in two areas that would stay with him.

He became an Eagle Scout at 13—a young age to attain the group’s highest rank. Among the skills he developed in the scouts was target shooting. He won a few four-state regional small-bore rifle competitions in his youth. Today he continues to hunt elk, deer, turkey, and pheasant and is re-engaging in fly fishing.

 
"Is this horse going to buck me off?" thinks Terry, age 5.   Pinning With Pride: Inez Ruckriegle, Terry’s mother, decorates her 13-year-old Eagle Scout.
     

Ruckriegle connected with one of his father’s former students, who was an accomplished criminal defense attorney. That relationship ignited an interest that would put him on his chosen career path.

While at college and law school in Indiana, Ruckriegle stayed motivated toward a legal career, but took time off after his second year of law school when he was given the opportunity to teach economics and political science at Pahlavi University in Shiraz, Iran. When he returned from the Middle East, he traveled to Colorado, visiting friends in Idaho Springs, as well as other states he considered living in after law school. Colorado won his heart. He finished his final year of law school and then worked as staff attorney with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission before moving here. He enjoyed the work he did for the Commission, finding that a career in public service felt right to him.

"It was appealing to me because that was the era when the Civil Rights Act came into existence and needed to be enforced," he said, adding that he enjoyed the challenge and playing a role in righting wrongs. "It was a time when every little bit counted in terms of making a change."

 
The "young" Ruckriegles visiting family back in the Midwest.   All grown up. The proverbial Christmas card family photo (left to right): Heidi, Debbie, Stephanie, Terry, and Sarah.
     

A Career in Public Service

After working in private practice when he arrived in Colorado, Ruckriegle became a deputy district attorney (DA) in 1975 for the Fifth J.D. DA’s Office. It was fast-paced, covering both county and district courts, and gave him the litigation experience he was seeking.

His breadth of cases at the DA’s Office continually reminded him of the need to always keep learning. He recalls one case in particular that reinforced this. A man was accused of murdering his wife and covering it up by faking a car accident. Ruckriegle worked closely with Medical Examiner Dr. Ben Galloway, who determined that the victim had been hit in the head before the accident. Ruckriegle also learned that the man had previously stolen his car from a mechanic’s garage and set it on fire before his wife’s death; that piece of information, however, didn’t make it into evidence.

Rule 404(b), dealing with admissibility of evidence, is "used now regularly . . . but at the time, there wasn’t case law in Colorado that supported it," he said.

He challenged the issue in the Colorado Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, but to no avail. In the end, the man was acquitted.

"It was a case that totally changed the way I looked at investigating, preparing, and trying cases," he said. "It made me understand to the core . . . what law was all about. If you go to trial, it all comes down to the burden of proof."

After nine years in the DA’s Office, Ruckriegle learned that his boss and mentor, Jack Healy, would not seek another term as the Fifth J.D. DA. Ruckriegle decided to run for DA. Months later, the legislature added a new district judge position in the Fifth J.D., and he was encouraged to apply. He decided he would pursue both.

Some questions arose about seeking two positions at the same time, but Ruckriegle said he felt he was qualified to do either job well and wanted to give both a shot, because the opportunity might not come again. Still, he said balancing a campaign for the DA’s job and moving through the merit selection process for a month left him conflicted.

"I literally was doing both at the same time," he said. "It was schizophrenic."

In July 1984, Ruckriegle was appointed to the bench by Gov. Dick Lamm and bowed out of the DA’s race.

"I had never really—even in my wildest dreams—thought of being on the bench. But the time that I had spent—between practice, the DA’s Office, trying cases in the courtroom, and learning the rules of evidence and procedure—it clicked. It excited me," he said.

Ruckriegle is the second in a line of three CBA presidents with a public service background. CBA Immediate Past President Mark Fogg worked in the Denver DA’s Office, starting as an intern in law school, before moving to private practice. CBA President-Elect Charley Garcia, who will succeed Ruckriegle in July 2014, worked as a public defender for twenty-five years and then served as Denver Manager of Safety and special counsel to the governor. Ruckriegle would like to see more attorneys who are in public service get involved with the CBA, where attorneys can address issues that impact the profession and affect policy.

"Other than the legislature, I think the bar association is the major incubator for addressing legal issues, whether in formulating new laws, developing policy, or through the continuing education process and teaching about the process," he said. "It gives you the opportunity to be either a leader or a participant regarding an issue or area of law you think needs to be advocated."

Stories From the Bench

In the twenty-six years that Ruckriegle sat on the bench, he became known for having a "tough-but-fair" attitude. He likes to reflect, though, that some who appeared in front of him probably felt he was the "‘mean’ part of demeanor."

 
  Terry Ruckriegle "on the bench."
   

He does have high expectations for those who appear in his court, but said it was something he learned from other judges when he was in practice and a prosecutor. It also tolled back to his memories as a scout and the need to always be ready for anything.

"In order for your side to have a fair hearing—for your position to be heard—you have to be prepared," Ruckriegle said. "You can’t just argue it to death. You have to be convincing; that needs to be done both in terms of research of the law and communicating about what the specific facts of your case are."

Attorneys who appeared in front of him said he was straightforward about his expectations. "In court, he was a firm, motivating judge," said Ron Carlson of the Frisco-based firm Carlson, Carlson & Dunkelman. "He wanted things done well, he wanted things done correctly, he wanted things to move, and was a no-nonsense judge."

In the first few years on the bench, Ruckriegle worked to find his own rhythm, but found the advice of colleagues to be paramount: don’t expect to make a lot of friends—especially in a rural area; remember your role is to enforce the rule of law; don’t take cases under advisement; and take your vacations to avoid stress. "It’s a very isolating position," he said, adding that the exposure in a small community is greater than in an urban area. However, he has enjoyed the opportunity to learn about so many different aspects of law—something that Fourteenth J.D. Chief Judge Michael O’Hara, whom Ruckriegle mentored, says is a challenge that Ruckriegle told him about when he was appointed to the bench in 2003.

During Ruckriegle’s tenure, he presided over several notable cases, including an environmental pollution case where locals accused Aspen Ski Corporation (operating Breckenridge Ski Area) of polluting Cucumber Creek; a case against Jack Nicklaus over a high-altitude golf course; heart-breaking child abuse cases; and one that would rake in media attention before Kobe Bryant even entered the draft, let alone Eagle County: the murder of Colorado State Trooper Lyle Wohlers. This last case involved two minors accused of murdering Wohlers during a traffic stop in Georgetown in 1992. It was another time that Ruckriegle would be called on to manage the media in his courtroom.

"There was a lot of fanfare and media interest and an attempt to create a circus atmosphere," Galloway said.

In 2000, Ruckriegle was nominated for the Colorado Supreme Court.

"I felt I had a considerable amount of trial court experience that would be beneficial," he said, adding that he knew the other justices on the Court and believed he would work well with them. Although disappointed he was not selected, he was honored by the nomination.

"I had some very interesting and rewarding experiences as a trial judge after that," Ruckriegle said. "[Not being appointed to the high court] in some ways reinvigorated me to the work of a trial court bench."

Among those cases was Kobe Bryant’s, which captured global attention. There was a "feeding frenzy" for information, Ruckriegle said. At one point, 1,100 media credentials, including requests from outlets in Italy where Bryant grew up, were requested, and 25% of motions filed were brought by members of the media.

"What I saw [during that case] was that [Judge Ruckriegle] put the case front and center and made sure that nobody’s jobs got consumed by the firestorm of media," said defense attorney Pamela Mackey, who represented Bryant. "He was still the same trial judge that he’d always been—careful, thoughtful, and diligent—and he demanded that everyone did their jobs."

Ruckriegle maintained his full docket during the proceedings. "I don’t know how he could manage the rest of his docket because he was hugely thorough," said Hal Haddon, who also represented Bryant.

Although some mistakes were made over of the course of the case, Ruckriegle said it was important to get information online and provide public access to rulings by the court and to actions in the Judicial Branch.

"I think [posting the documents] went a long way in providing a transparency that we previously hadn’t had," said Karen Salaz, who was the public information officer for the Judicial Branch on Bryant’s case. "I think that the public saw a side of the courts in Colorado they had never seen before. That, I think, has been really important as we have come forward."

Ruckriegle celebrated his twentieth year on the bench during jury selection for the case. Just as jury selection was wrapping up, the accuser asked prosecutors to drop the case, and the DA did. Ruckriegle was disappointed in not going to trial, calling it "justice abandoned, because the justice is in the process."

 
The Ruckriegles at the judge’s retirement party in 2010 (left to right): Debbie, Heidi, Terry, Sarah, and Stephanie.   Doc PJ (Craig Perrinjaquet) played bass at Ruckriegle’s retirement party.

A Not-So-Quiet Retirement

 
 

Discussing music on air during "So Much Music, So Little Time," Terry with longtime friend and NBC producer David Michaels, in Idaho Springs in 2012.

   

The year 2014 will mark forty years that Ruckriegle has practiced law in Colorado. Since retiring from the bench in 2010, he has served as a senior judge. The senior judge program allows him to serve as a judge in judicial districts across the state sixty days out of the year, helping ensure cases move more quickly through the system. He also serves as a mediator, arbitrator, and special master. Moving to the role of mediator has been different from his other role as a judge.

 "It’s a lot harder in some ways to be a mediator than it is to be a judge," he said. "In mediation, you’re trying to get parties to a resolution—a common-ground agreement where they can resolve their own conflict—as opposed to you telling them, ‘Alright, I’ve heard what you had to say and this is what you’re going to do.’"

Former staffers in Ruckriegle’s Summit County court joke that he seems to have even more on his plate in retirement than he did as a judge. "Much to his wife’s chagrin, his retirement has been more active," said Fifth J.D. staff attorney Philip Mervis.

Ruckriegle and his wife, Debbie, who married in 1979, are still making time for themselves in retirement—hiking, biking, skiing, and traveling in between his bar association leadership activities. They have three daughters: Stephanie, 29, a catering and events manager at the Denver Zoo; Heidi, 26, a law student in her third year at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law; and Sarah, 24, a public affairs officer in the Air Force.

 
Terry and Debbie at Ephesus in Turkey in 2011.   Terry and Debbie Ruckriegle on Delos in the Greek Islands in 2011. Delos is the purported center of the Greek mythological world.
     

Ruckriegle enjoys traveling the state as a part of the senior judge program, and has been to eleven of the state’s twenty-two judicial districts. He’ll travel the entire state in the next year, visiting local bar associations. "I’m truly looking forward to meeting and reengaging with the many leaders and members of the Colorado Bar Association around the state," he said.

Friends and colleagues say that his experience as a judge and his commitment to the profession make him well-equipped for his term as CBA president.

"His agreeing to be president of the bar association is sort of emblematic to me of his commitment to giving to his community," said former Colorado Judicial Department general counsel Kim Morss.

Mackey agreed. "He leads by example," she said. "There’s nobody who works harder than he does."

The Four Fishermen: Jim Benjamin, Terry Ruckriegle, Charley Garcia, and Mark Fogg, near the Big Horn River in Montana, May 2013. See more fishing-trip photos in this month’s Bar News.
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