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Home Courts By District 3rd Judicial District Historical sketch
Historical sketch

 

Historical Sketch of Colorado’s Third Judicial District (per September 7, 2017)

The Organic Act of Congress that created the Colorado Territory on February 28, 1861 divided the territory into three judicial districts and provided for a District Court in each one.  When Colorado became a State, a fourth judicial district was added.  There are currently sixty-four counties and twenty-two judicial districts in Colorado.  The judicial districts are numbered sequentially, according to the date they came into existence.  

This HISTORICAL LIST of Counties highlights:

  • when judicial districts of Colorado were added
  • which counties were assigned to the Third J.D. over the years
  • when each of the counties was formed.
     

Huerfano County was not only one of the original 26 counties established when Colorado became a State in 1876, but also was one of the original 17 counties of the Colorado Territory, established in 1861.  At that time, it encompassed much of the southeast corner of the state.  Except for two years—1864 and 1887--Huerfano County has been a part of the Third Judicial District.  In 1864, Huerfano County was made a part of the Second J.D., but returned to the Third J.D. the next year.   In 1866, Las Animas County was formed out of the southern part of Huerfano County and the two co-existed in the Third Judicial District with various other counties until 1945, except for 1887 when Las Animas County remained in the Third J.D., but Huerfano was moved to the Sixth J.D.  Since 1945, Huerfano and Las Animas Counties have exclusively comprised the Third Judicial District in Colorado.

 

County history

Huerfano County was named by early Spanish explorers.  In Spanish, “huerfano” means “orphan”, in this case referring to Huerfano Butte, a volcanic dome that stands alone in stark contrast to the Spanish Peaks, two of Colorado’s “fourteeners” located in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in the western part of the county.  The butte is located on Interstate 25 about 10 miles north of Walsenburg, the county seat. 

Las Animas County takes its name from El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, the early Spanish name for the Purgatoire River. It is said that river’s current once caused noises that sounded much like human moans, prompting early Spanish explorers to name it for the souls lost in purgatory.  With an area of 4,773 square miles, Las Animas is the largest of Colorado’s 64 counties.  The county seat is Trinidad, which sits between scenic Fisher's Peak to the south and Simpson’s Rest to the north. 

At various times (and sometimes concurrently) in the 18th and 19th centuries, with passing regard to Native American occupation, regions of what is now the State of Colorado have been claimed by a number of different sovereigns, including Spain, the British colony of Virginia, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States. 

After 1845, when Texas became a State, at least two Native American tribes, Mexico and the United States all claimed to control the area south of the Arkansas River.  In 1846 President Polk declared war on Mexico, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended our war with Mexico, ceded that land to the United StatesAfter the war, what is now Huerfano County was made a part of the New Mexico Territory; more specifically, Taos and Mora counties, in 1852 and 1860, respectively.

A notable figure in Huerfano County history, Charles Autobee settled Autobees Plaza at the confluence of the Huerfano and Arkansas Rivers in February, 1853.  Sometimes called “Autubes,” Autobees Plaza served as the county seat of Huerfano County from 1861-1867.  Important as it was to the establishment and development of Huerfano County, Autobees Plaza was a mere outpost for many years.  In 1853, there were only three other colonies on the eastern slope of the Rockies:  Fort Pueblo, Greenhorn, and Big Timber (occupied by William Bent).  And as late as 1859, when La Plaza de los Leónes (later to become Walsenburg) was settled, the population of the entire region was estimated to be only 25 people.  Also in 1859, after the discovery of gold in the region, organizers of the quasi-legal Jefferson Territory proposed a provisional government that would clearly include this area.  The Jefferson territorial government was never sanctioned by Congress, and ultimately it was superseded by the legal creation of the Colorado Territory. 

Huerfano County was created in November, 1861, only nine months after Congress created the Colorado Territory.  Very soon thereafter, Joseph Doyle was elected the County’s first Probate Judge, and George Simpson served as County Clerk.  Simpson later was elected County Court Judge in Trinidad.  He is also the namesake of Simpson’s Rest, where he was buried.  By 1865, when Judge Benjamin Fields took the Bench, the population of Huerfano County had grown to approximately 370, but, reportedly, lawyers, doctors and priests were in short supply.   The Sand Creek Massacre in 1865, the legal creation of Las Animas County in 1866, and the subsequent removal of the remaining Arapaho and Cheyenne to “Indian Territory” in 1867 paved the way for a reorganization of Huerfano County.  This included the designation of Badito as the county’s new seat.  Badito continued in that capacity until 1872, when the seat was moved to Plaza de los Leones.  The following year the Plaza was incorporated under a new name: Walsenburgh.  The “h” in Walsenburg fell away over time through common usage, but the county seat remains.  Somewhere during this time period Autobees Plaza was relocated within the boundaries of Pueblo County, and, by 1910, Badito had become a ghost town.

The first known “settlement” in the expansive territory that once was Huerfano County took the form of a log cabin built in 1846 by a man named Hatcher.  It was built near Dodsonville, in what is now Las Animas County.  While it didn’t rise to the level of a “colony” (meaning others didn’t join him) and he didn’t stay there long, it signaled possibility to others as the territory expanded around it.  Specifically, it was still evident to James Grey in 1860 when he settled Grey’s Creek, just as it was to Cristobal Tafoya, Joaquin Young and Jean Charlefon when they arrived a year earlier and called the surroundings San Lorenzo.  San Lorenzo did not endure, but Grey’s Creek was to become a stop on the road that connected Bent’s Old Fort to El Moro, running through Trinidad on the way to Fort Union by way of Raton Pass.  Originally a military route, this southern spur of the Santa Fe Trail was also used to carry mail and passengers by stagecoach.  Over the years Trinidad, the county seat, has been described many ways.  Early on it was referred to as “the rendezvous of thieves and murderers”, later (more positively) for the opportunities provided by its rich coal and mineral reserves; but most often the town has been called “favorably located” and “picturesque.”  Regardless, this is the place that Horace Long, the county’s first territorial probate court judge called home in 1867.

 

Traveling Supreme Court Judge

During the Colorado Territorial period, one of the three Territorial Supreme Court Justices was assigned to hear District Court cases in each of the districts.  The Justice “rode the circuit” between sessions of the Supreme Court.  Because the districts encompassed multiple counties it was most efficient to designate one county in each district where district court matters would be heard.  A legislative act was the mechanism.  The legislature set the day and month court routinely was to be held, and declared smaller, less populous, counties attached to larger ones for judicial purposes.  In compliance, clerks of court transferred records to that location in preparation of trial. 

 

Colorado became a State

The transition from territorial government to statehood began with Congress passing an enabling act on March 3, 1875, to authorize the formation of a state.  That was followed by a State Constitutional Convention, which convened on December 20, 1875 and adjourned on March 15, 1876.  The proposed Constitution was approved by popular election on July 1, 1876, the results of which were certified to President U.S. Grant, who proclaimed Colorado a state on August 1, 1876.

 

Our Judges

Between 1876 and 2017, the Third Judicial District has seated twenty district court judges.  In the same time period, Huerfano County has seated eighteen county court judges, and Las Animas County has seated sixteen.  Historical lists of district and county court judges in the Third J.D. are attached.

The first district court judge in the Third Judicial District was John W. Henry, who served from 1877 to 1882.  The first Huerfano County Court Judge was Charles D. Hayt.  Judge Hayt also served as a District Court Judge in the Sixth J.D. between 1882 and 1889.  Immediately thereafter, he was elected to the Colorado Supreme Court.  And the first Las Animas County Court Judge was Michael Beshoar, M.D., who, literally, wrote the book on Trinidad’s early history.

In 1966, a year after Colorado grew to its current size--twenty-two judicial districts, Colorado adopted a pure merit selection system for all of its judges.  Under merit selection, judges are not elected; rather, a nominating commission submits a list of qualified candidates (usually three) to the Governor for appointment for a two-year provisional term.  The judge’s record is then evaluated by the Judicial Performance Commission, which makes a recommendation to the voters of that jurisdiction regarding the quality of the judge’s work.  At the next general election, voters then decide whether to retain the judge for an additional term.  Colorado District Court Judges serve six-year terms, and County Court Judges serve for four years.

Today, two judges are assigned to the Third Judicial District Court:  Chief Judge Leslie J. Gerbracht, who has served on the District Court since 2007 and John ‘Clay’ McKisson who has served on that court since 2017. The current Huerfano County Court Judge is Dawn Mann, sworn in in January 2019. The current Las Animas County Court Judge is John Mochel, who has served on that court since January 2019.

An interesting fact that distinguishes the Third Judicial District relates to the allocation of judges in the district.  By law, S.B. 19 in 1964 (L. 64, Ch. 42 at p. 399), the Third J.D. consists of a northern division in Walsenburg and a southern division in Trinidad.  One district court judge must be assigned to each division, and those judges are required to maintain both an official residence and judicial chambers in their respective divisions.
 

Meet our District Judges

 

 

Our Courthouse buildings

The current Las Animas County courthouse is located in Trinidad, and was completed in 1912.  It is a Beaux Arts/Neo-Classical style building built by Architects Issac Rapp, William Rapp and C.A. Henderson.

The current Huerfano County courthouse is located in Walsenburg, and was completed in 1904.  It is a Richardsonian Romanesque style building built by Architect C.A. Henderson. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Huerfano County is in the process of building a new courthouse to meet the need for safe and updated judicial infrastructure. Groundbreaking took place on August 1, 2019, with completion expected in Fall  2020.

 

 

 

 

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