THREE’S COMPANY: Associate judges join other new magistrates in Aurora

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AURORA | With their right hands raised, a dozen new municipal court judges were sworn in this week.

The new judges are part of a series of seismic changes at the Aurora Municipal Court, changes that include the retirement of judges and a court reporter with a combined 130 years of experience and a new courtroom to handle a growing caseload.

For Presiding Judge Shawn Day — himself a relative newcomer to his current job having been sworn in as the top judge in September — the changes are daunting but welcome.

“I’m very excited about the changes that we’re making and I’m excited to have the new judges on board,” Day said.

City officials announced last month that three new, full-time associate judges — Robert FitzGerald, Dan Kopper and Cynthia Mares — were appointed to the bench. The three take over for retiring judges Greg Hopkins, Loretta Huffine and Al Stine and will serve four-year terms.

Day said that combined, Stine, Huffine and Hopkins, as well as a court reporter who also recently retired, have more than 130 years of experience just at the municipal court.

Four new relief judges — who sit as trial judges when associate judges are on leave ­— have also been appointed: Dion Arguelles, Andrea Koppenhofer, Peter Frigo and Billy Stiggers.

Two of the retiring judges, Huffine and Stine, also will serve as relief judges, according to a statement from the city.

Huffine took the bench at municipal court as a half-time judge in 1982 and assumed a full-time spot there in 1994.

In her decades at the court, Huffine said she saw the court shift from handling the low-level “traffic and dogs” that many people associate with municipal court to tougher cases dealing with domestic violence and mental health issues.

“It’s become much more complicated, the variety of cases that are handled has grown exponentially over the years,” she said.

In domestic violence cases, Huffine said the municipal court is the right venue because it can move more quickly than other courts could. If someone is arrested on a domestic violence charge on a Monday, they see a municipal court judge that Tuesday, she said.

“It was the immediate response to address the cycle of violence, immediate response to assist the victim,” she said.

For many people, municipal court is their only contact with the legal system. Huffine said she hopes when people come through the court, whether as defendants in a traffic matter or as a crime victim or witness, they leave with a better understanding of how the law works.

“Hopefully they leave with a good impression that at least they have been heard,” she said.

Day said that even with all the changes happening at Aurora’s municipal court, he doesn’t think the public will notice much of a difference.

“But I hope that they will still experience the high level of customer service and respect that our court shows to each and every person who walks through the courthouse doors,” he said.

FitzGerald is a former assistant Aurora city attorney and served eight years on Aurora City Council.

Kopper is a former prosecutor in Adams County and Denver County.

Mares is a former deputy state public defender.

The appointments mean all the judgeships in the city are full, but there could be one opening soon. City council voted in December to open another courtroom to handle an anticipated uptick in cases and that room will require another full-time judge.

That court will cost about $500,000 for the city to staff with a judge and the required administrative staff.

Court officials have said the new courtroom is needed to deal with what could be a significant spike in the courthouse’s caseload in the coming years.

Last year, Day said he had to delay several trials that were ready to go forward because there wasn’t a courtroom available to host them. Also, Day said, without the new courtroom municipal court judges could be faced with having to dismiss some cases that weren’t brought to trial within the 90 days mandated by law.