Denver Direct: Return to Fair Play

Monday, December 20, 2010

Return to Fair Play

Apparently there is nothing like a reversal by an appeals court to get a judge’s attention. Colorado Judicial District 11’s Judge Stephen Groome presided over yet another Contempt of Court hearing against Vern Wagner in Fairplay, Colorado on November 23, 2010. Having been reversed on a previous Contempt of Court hearing which put Wagner in jail for 5 days without a proper hearing, Groome was now a changed man. He had even stated earlier that now he was going to run his courtroom “by the book”.

Having spent 4 days in Fairplay last May, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go back and watch the fate of rancher Vern Wagner being kicked around in the court room of Park County Judge Stephen Groome. The local Fairplay newspaper, The Flume, has done a great job reporting the details, here and here. For earlier Denver Direct coverage, go here and here.

Expanded Media Coverage

At that previous hearing, Denver Direct had filed for permission to videotape inside the hearing room. Judge Groome dismissed the request because it wasn’t properly filed at least 24 hours before as required, and when we re-filed 24 hours before the next day’s hearing, he rejected it because the decision had already been made for the whole hearing.

This time we filed by email 4 days before the hearing. Two days later we were told we could set up our video equipment in the court room but not turn it on until given permission. So that is what we did. Arriving at 9:00 am, we were ready to roll at 9:30.

Sitting to the right of the court room were many of the same government crew that had gathered at the previous hearing. This included the irrepressible Park County Animal Control Sergeant Bobbi Priestly, in uniform with flak jacket, who had previously demonstrated her profound lack of knowledge in evidence gathering practice. Also in attendance was the government veterinarian who hadn’t known the gestation period for cows, and the chief for the Bureau of Animal Protection, Scot Dutcher, (recently reprimanded because of the revelation of his more than 4,000 tweets on Twitter as Skinnyhorse) who had earlier explained his failure to roll a dead cow over to see its brand by saying he had a weak stomach.

On the left sat Wagner’s family and friends, including his bright young grandkids. We were excited and pleased to be cracking the video firewall surrounding what had been a travesty of justice at the previous hearing. This time, we hoped, videotape would reveal the incompetence, ignorance and arrogance of the State in its prolonged harassment of Vern Wagner.

We were all squirming on the hard bench pews by 10:00 am, and around 10:30 a clerk came in to tell us that all the parties were still in conference. At around 11:30 the conferees filled the front of the courtroom, and Judge Groome, after checking with the attorneys for both parties, and commenting on our patience, gave us the go ahead to videotape.

Unfortunately, what followed was essentially a report on the “backroom” deal that had just been struck. In private, the State backed down. Under the terms of this new agreement, Animal Control has to give Wagner 72 hours notice of an on-site visit and Wagner gets to have an equal number of individuals inspecting the cattle. Wagner has to report on the status of the cows once a month, and report if he chooses to move them to pastures other than the ones specified. The current Contempt of Court charge is dropped. As Groome himself said, the State gets what it wanted and the “status quo is preserved.”

It wasn’t until Judge Groome had been castigated by the Appeals Court and been nearly removed from the bench in the recent November election (lost in Park County but won overall in the District) that we have seen a return to Fair Play. Let’s hope it lasts in Fairplay, at least until Vern Wagner truly gets his day in court.