Durango resident Anthony Nathaniel Baca was sworn in Wednesday as a district court judge for the 6th Judicial District, which covers Archuleta, San Juan and La Plata counties.
Baca, 42, has spent his career practicing law, studying legal systems and overseeing courtrooms.
Gov. Jared Polis appointed him to serve as a La Plata County Court judge on Dec. 27, but one week later appointed him to serve in the district court position vacated by Todd Norvell. County court judges handle lower-level offenses, while district court judges oversee higher-level offenses such as felonies, high-dollar lawsuits and water court cases.
“For whatever reason, the governor thought I was the best judge for the county court position and then the best choice for the district court position,” Baca said Wednesday during an interview with The Durango Herald. “Ultimately, what matters to me is that I'm in a position to serve my community as best as I can. And I appreciate that the governor thought that it would be appropriate to do that at a district court level.”
Baca said he is interested in finding ways to prevent recidivism and get people out of the court system. A large portion of cases involve people struggling with addiction and mental health issues, he said, so he wants to find better ways to get them the services they need so they can improve their lives, become productive members of society and be in a better position than they were when they entered the judicial system.
“We need to get multiple professionals from different avenues, not just from the court, to be involved in people's lives – particularly at the pretrial services level – so that we can immediately start making an impact on their lives,” he said.
He added: “This isn't to say that we should fully support the defendant without considering the victim. I think we can do both at the same time. We can make sure that the victim is getting all the supports they need, so that they can go along the pathways that work for them, and that the defendants can also receive the same type of support, the same type of restorative services.”
The Colorado Legislature has considered appropriate jail and prison terms based on different types of crimes, Baca said, and he plans to rely on those guidelines in determining punishments that are beneficial to defendants.
Baca said he has always been interested in human rights and ways society can deal with its problems.
He interned for prosecutors at a national court set up in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to help handle war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s. He was struck by the focus on truth-telling and reconciliation that allowed victims to take the witness stand and share their stories, he said.
“I really appreciate that, because it allows them to heal in a way that I wish we could do more of in the United States system,” Baca said.
It troubles him that homeless people are often trapped in the criminal justice system, essentially serving life sentences one day at a time.
“We need to take it upon ourselves to deal with these types of injustices so that we can help these people out, get them out of the system and improve our community,” he said.
As a defense lawyer, Baca said he always wanted to understand a situation from both sides. That instinct led him to wanting to become a judge, he said, which allows him to consider both sides of a case before making a decision. Otherwise, it is an adversarial system in which the job is to prosecute or defend, he said.
The hardest part about serving as a judge is deciding whether to take away a person’s liberties, he said.
“I take that very seriously,” he said. “… Anytime you're taking away even a minute of someone's life, you really need to pause and take the time to fully understand the situation and try your best to make the best decision.”
Baca said his favorite U.S. Supreme Court justices are Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He appreciates judges who are leaders in moving lives forward, “particularly lives who don't have opportunities, who have been kept down through systemic injustice, who are currently being kept down by a system that's built upon systemic injustices and implicit biases.”
Ginsburg, in particular, saw the inequality in the system and fought to balance it, he said.
Baca was born and raised in Gallup, New Mexico, and attended a private high school before earning a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 2009.
Following law school he worked as a public defender in Albuquerque and then opened a private practice in the Denver area. He also worked in the public defender’s office in Denver.
He became manager of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, a think tank at the University of Denver, where he worked with Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, who was a leader in making courts more efficient, more equitable and more accessible.
He then spent time researching Denver courts and homelessness and “how we can treat people a little bit differently so that we can get them out of the cycles that put them in custody,” he said.
In about 2020, he was appointed to serve as the Dolores County Court judge.
“Thankfully, I was accepted and I was able to come down here and do my best in Dolores County to represent some really great people and a really great community,” he said.
He also served as a magistrate in the Cortez area for the 22nd Judicial District.