For Judge Thomas Harrington, his time as the presiding judge for the Big Horn County Fifth Judicial Circuit Court is coming to an end. After serving for ten years, Harrington is set to retire when his term expires on January 7, 2019.
Harrington has deep family roots in the Basin area. His parents were born in Basin, as he was. His grandfather was an attorney who had an office in Basin. His uncle, K. Warren Brome, was the editor of the Basin Republican Rustler.
He went to law school at the University of Wyoming and graduated in 1991. Prior to going to law school, he was a teacher and a wrestling coach in Worland. He practiced with Messenger and Jurovich in Thermopolis. He was also a part-time public defender during his time there. Then in 1994, he was elected as the Washakie County attorney until 2002. He had a general practice in Worland with John Davis.
In 2008, he was appointed to the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court by then Gov. Dave Freudenthal. Harrington was replacing Judge Robert E. Skar who had been appointed to become the District Court Judge. Skar is set to retire on Oct. 2 this year. He said he decided to become a judge because he had been involved in court and thought he could make a positive impact.
Harrington presided over four courts: Lovell, Basin, Worland and Thermopolis. He had a set schedule to attend each court, and sometimes he would be at several courts in one day. When someone is arrested, they have 72 hours to see him or her. There are magistrates that are appointed in circuit court to help with hearings. Harrington explained that there are caseload studies and they submit their numbers every year. Those numbers determine how many judges, assistants and magistrates for each county.
He has seen changes in the circuit court since taking the bench. He said that their jurisdiction was expanded to include civil cases up to $50,000 in controversy where it used to be $10,000 in the past.
Circuit court also has tried to adopt the best practices and to be uniform. They prepared bench books to express what are the best practices.
As a judge he was continually learning new things. He said that the circuit court judges have conferences where all the judges meet. He was the president and vice president of those a few years ago. They meet regularly to discuss issues and continue their education. They have to have 15 hours a year of continuing education to keep in good standing. They had trainings and seminars. “There is always something new that you have never heard of,” he said. The judges e-mail each other continually to help each other.
There were some difficult cases that Harrington had to preside over. He said as the circuit court judge, all cases start there. They held preliminary hearings for felony cases to see if they can advance to district court. They sign the documents and the warrants for everything. Harrington dealt with homicides, child abuse, sexual assaults and drugs. He said child abuse and sexual assaults were the worst. He recalled a case in Washakie County where a couple of guys left a man who overdosed to die on the floor.
One of the best parts of the job, he said, was the clerks he had in all three counties. “They do a great job. I’m lucky to have great people to work with that make my life easy and fix my mistakes,” he said.
For the most part, he dealt with really good attorneys. He said that dealing with the men and women of the Wyoming Bar was a real privilege. He’s excited to see a lot more women becoming lawyers.
One of his favorite aspects as a judge was being part of Family Treatment Court. He said that he saw a whole lot of people ranging from juvenile to 50 years old work through that program and get their life back. He said that most of them had children that were taken away, and they got them back. He recalled a time back in Washakie County where the jail was full of women who were full of drugs. Ten to 12 of the women went through the program and most of them succeeded. He said that it’s rewarding to see because they are changing behavior. He said that there has been good support from state legislators.
He said it was a real privilege to be a part of the judiciary system and being back in Big Horn County. He has enjoyed his time. “I have no regrets. I’m not burnt out or mad. It’s time for me to move on and time for some new blood to come in and rejuvenate this.”
Harrington said that the court systems are moving forward in regards to technology. One of those improvements involves e-filing of court documents. There will also be e-citations. The Wyoming Highway Patrol has implemented e-citations and Harrington said it cut their stop time in half. It will be a lot of work to get them to the sheriff’s department and the police department.
The circuit court is also working to improve their court security. They recently received a grant that will allow the circuit court to go through improvements. He said that it was in large part due to the court security committee in Big Horn County. He said it was active due to Sheriff Ken Blackburn’s leadership. The basement of the Circuit Court will go through renovations. There will be a new courtroom built where the storage room is. The county attorney’s office will move over where the circuit courtroom is and circuit court will move into their offices. They will also have key fobs and cameras to improve security. He said it was huge collaboration that involved many people from the courthouse. Fred Werner, the maintenance man, studied where everything is and came up with ideas. Lori Smallwood offered to move her election machines over to the old jail. Marcia Bean came in with a fresh look and presented ideas. He said it involved everyone.
They are also improving the forms for the circuit court. They are looking to get them to be electronic and ready for the new judge. Harrington is looking forward to a judge who will take over these improvements.
Harrington has several plans for his retirement. He got his teaching and coaching license back. He will be volunteering as an assistant coach for wrestling in Worland. He also said that he will be fixing up the house and doing some traveling. He will also be a part of the Emeritus Attorney Program with the Wyoming Sate Bar where he will be doing pro-bono cases. He will also volunteer at the crisis centers such as CARES to help people fill out applications.
The search for Harrington’s replacement is in the process of finding nominees. The expressions of interest deadline was Aug. 29. The process involves a Judicial Nominating Committee that consists of three lawyers elected by the Wyoming State Bar: Richard H. Honaker of Rock Springs, Professor John M. Burman of Laramie and Gay Woodhouse of Cheyenne. The committee also consists of three non-lawyers appointed by the governor: Lori A. Emmert of Douglas, Rosie Berger of Big Horn and Paul Scherbel of Afton. The head of that nominating committee is Chief
Justice Davis from the Wyoming Supreme Court. The committee will interview candidates and submit three names to Governor Matt Mead
who has 30 days to decide who he will appoint.
By JESSICA ROBINSON