Wheels of Weld Justice Began Turning in 1863

By former Weld County District Attorney Al Dominguez

Originally published in the Saturday, July 17, 1999, edition of the Weld County Past Times (Greeley Tribune).

It is fun to look back and see where we came from. It gives us direction and a sense of belonging. As your district attorney, I have often wondered where this office began and what it looked like over the years.

A number of years back, I commissioned a research project to get the names and pictures of all district attorneys who have served our citizens in Weld County. By the end of this year, I hope to have a wall at the district attorney’s office with all former DA’s pictures and a short biography.

Historically, Weld County has not always looked like it does today. The first territorial Legislature in Colorado established Weld County as one of the original 17 counties in this state. This was done in September of 1861 and Weld County included all parts of Colorado lying east of Larimer County and north of the present Adams County.

The first county seat was located at St. Vrain. During the first 16 years of Weld County’s history, the county seat was moved from St. Vrain to Latham, which was three miles east of the present Greeley, to Evans, to Greeley, to Evans again, and finally, in 1877, returned to Greeley. As time went on the population of the state grew, so did the redistribution of county boundaries into what we see today.

The Legislature also created judicial districts to place it courts. During the territorial days, Weld and Arapahoe counties were always the first judicial district. Until 1867, Weld, for judicial purposes, was attached to Arapahoe and its district court cases were tried in Denver.

By Act of 1867, Weld was detached from Arapahoe and Larimer was attached to Weld for judicial purposes with a provision that terms of the district court should be held at Latham. The first term of that court was held in October of 1867. Under the state constitution, the state was first divided into four judicial districts, of which the second consisted of Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, Weld and Larimer. In 1887, more judicial districts were created and Weld became part of the eighth judicial district with Larimer and Boulder. In 1970, the judicial districts were once again reorganized and 22 judicial districts were created. Weld County became the 19th judicial district at that time.

Before the state constitution, during the territorial days, criminal cases were heard in the probate court. The probate courts had criminal and civil jurisdiction, changed from time to time by the Legislature. The judges in those courts were known as probate judges. Today the court is known as the county court and the judges as county court judges. The first case in the Weld probate court was before Judge F. W. Hammitt on December, 29, 1863 at his residence hear Platteville in a criminal proceeding of People vs. Carel to make the defendant keep the peace.

Before Weld County became the 19th judicial district in 1970, when it was part of the first, second and eighth judicial districts, the judges and the district attorneys “rode a circuit.” Because their jurisdictions were so large, there had to be special days when they would ride to the courthouses and hear their cases.

It was not required that the judges live in Weld County. During my early years in the legal profession, the judges would come up from Boulder to hear cases. I remember one judge, Judge Buck, who was adamant about no one stepping on “the great seal of State of Colorado.” The seal was embedded in the floor of the courtroom right in front of the judge’s bench. So if you had to approach the bench, you had to walk around the seal and not step on it. I learned this by having the good judge admonish me, in a strong and forceful voice: “Counsel, you will not step on the seal of the great State of Colorado!” He only had to tell me once!

District attorneys have always been charged with prosecuting the criminal laws of this state.

Before we became the 19th judicial district, all district attorneys were elected as part-time state officials. They were allowed to appoint deputies to assist them in their legal duties and clerical employees to deal with the other duties. The first district attorney who served in Weld County was Vincent D. Markham. In 1868, he was elected as the prosecuting attorney for the then First Judicial District and he covered the large district until 1871.

As we look at the individuals who have served as district attorney in our district, we see individuals who came from varied backgrounds and who achieved prominence in their own right. Ledru R. Rhodes, who served from 1886-1889, was once chosen attorney for the Colorado Cattle Growers Association. George A. Carlson, who served from 1909 to 1915, was elected governor of Colorado in 1914. Russel W. Fleming who served from 1917 to 1921, was elected Colorado attorney general in 1923. Herbert M. Baker, who served from 1933 to 1941, was a well known essayist and poet. Hatfield Chilson, who served from 1941-1949, served under President Eisenhower as assistant secretary and undersecretary of the Interior Department. He eventually went on to be a U.S. district judge in Denver. James H. Shelton, who served as the last part-time district attorney from 1956-1973, was a well-known citizen of Greeley who was involved in many local organizations and was one of our leading citizens until his death in 1989.

The first full-time district attorney for the 19th Judicial District was Robert N. Miller, who served from 1973-1981. Miller, when he took office, had Robert E. Ray and William L. Crosier as his deputy district attorneys. He also had two clerical employees to assist him. By 1974 the office had frown to 15 full-time employees. The first district attorney’s office was located on the second floor of the old jail house which was located directly west of the courthouse. It moved to the second floor of the Coronado Building, east of the courthouse and eventually were moved to the new county complex, where the office located today.

New technological changes have dictated a new way of doing business. From typewriters to computers, from paper files to optical-scanned disc files, from rotary phones to complex cellular phones and pagers, fighting crime has become a complex and time-consuming process.

Criminals are getting more sophisticated, the types of crimes are getting more complex and keeping up with rapidly changing technology keeps us all on our toes.

As we look at the new century, there are new challenges and new issues for the 19th Judicial District Attorney’s office to face. We are eager to serve the citizens of Weld County and help make our county a place we can all be proud of.

The Weld County District Attorney’s Office is now located in the Centennial
Building and covers three floors. The office currently employs 70 people including 28 attorneys.

Did You Know?
Before Weld County became the 19th judicial district in 1970, it was part of the first, second and eighth judicial districts.