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Former La Plata County judge talks gender bias, mistakes and silver linings

Anne Woods was removed by voters in November after serving two years on the bench
Anne Woods is sworn in as a La Plata County Court judge Oct. 6, 2020. She was 33 years old. Voters declined to retain her as a county judge in November. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
Jan 15, 2023
Ousted La Plata County judge explains her judicial philosophy, battle against public perception

Former La Plata County Judge Anne Woods shared some thoughts about her two years on the bench after La Plata County voters declined to retain her in November.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Durango Herald, she addressed a number of topics, including judicial authority, bias against women on the bench, mistakes she made and the role bail plays in deterring crime. And in one of her biggest pet peeves, she complained about news coverage during her time on the bench.

By topic, here are some of Woods’ takeaways:

Not a full picture

Woods said Herald stories during her time on the bench focused on certain aspects of cases she adjudicated without providing a full picture of why decisions were made, and in one particular instance lacked objectivity.

She cites one story about her removal from setting felony bails, which she said contained unsubstantiated information She was referring to a story in which Chief District Judge Jeffrey Wilson issued an administrative order that assigned other judges to oversee felony-level advisement hearings – something Woods used to be able to do.

Woods at the time had garnered attention for granting low bail amounts in some criminal cases. But a district administrator said Wilson’s decision was based on other factors. Woods said the story insinuated she was removed from felony advisement hearings because of her past bail-setting decisions.

“It was just like, ‘Here’s what we are thinking,’” Woods said of the article. “So that was problematic.”

The story also mentioned a case in which a woman suspected of setting a barn on fire was released by Woods without bail. The woman was arrested a week later for committing more crimes. The district attorney’s office had requested bail be set at $50,000.

About this series

This is the second of a two-part series about former La Plata County Judge Anne Woods, who lost a retention vote Nov. 8. Part one appeared online and in print editions Sunday.

“In almost all the cases in which I was called out for releasing someone who went on to reoffend, the prosecutors agreed to the person’s release,” Woods said, but the newspaper focused on cases where the prosecution disagreed.

An example of that collaboration, where she felt she alone was held accountable in the newspaper, involved a man who molested a horse.

“I was very skeptical about releasing him even though he didn’t have a criminal history because I was concerned about his ability to follow court orders and stay out of trouble,” Woods said. “But the parties (DA and defense lawyer) agreed that a recognizance bond was appropriate. So I said ‘OK.’”

She also faulted the Herald for failing to mention the strict requirements placed on defendants as part of their bail conditions.

Limits on judicial authority

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the justice system and the constitutional limits to a judge’s authority, Woods said. While some circumstances require a judge to exercise independent judgment, judges generally stick “to calling balls and strikes,” she said.

“So when both sides agree, judges don’t get in the way” unless justice demands it, Woods said.

Deeper dive on conditions of release

Woods wanted to clarify the role of conditions she placed on certain people’s release that she was later excoriated for by the public.

The judiciary refers to it as “conditions of bond” that might include required substance abuse and mental health treatment, drug and alcohol tests multiple times a week, relinquishing firearms, restricted movement in the community and staying away from victims and witnesses.

“And if they didn’t follow the rules of their release, they were back in jail,” she said. “And again, in many situations, the judge has to rely on the prosecutors to ask for a person’s bond to be revoked. There are only limited situations when a judge can send someone to jail without a request by law enforcement or the DA.”

Bias against women on the bench

Female judges do face bias on the bench based solely on gender, Woods said when asked if it was an issue.

“If I were older or male, I believe more people would inherently trust that I knew what I was doing in the position I am in, that I had earned it, rather than assuming I didn’t,” she said.

Woods shied away from touting her accomplishments when she arrived on the bench, which left the public not knowing much about her beyond the five years she served as a public defender.

“I never wanted to make a big deal out of those things, but it’s almost like I would have had to in order to have any credibility,” she said.

Colleagues had to “continuously” remind Woods not to downplay her accomplishments or concede on experience, because experience does not always translate to wisdom.

Woods was an experienced trial attorney who litigated novel and complex issues before her arrival on the bench, she said. She won numerous appeals, and her legal arguments won in higher courts, including the Colorado Supreme Court, she said.

“But because of who I am, most people didn’t trust me to make tough decisions and know the law,” she said. “They assumed I wasn’t up to the task instead of assuming I was worthy of the job.”

Many other women in positions of authority have felt the same way, that trust isn’t inherently given, that women must earn it in some way or feel like they’re bragging, or having to explain why they are in that position, Woods said.

“Because people don’t want to give you the same automatic credit as a male,” she said.

Woods, however, does not blame gender for her struggles on the bench.

“I was too loud about my goals,” she said. “My declarations undermined what I was actually doing day to day in my courtroom. I didn’t really play my cards right to make meaningful change, because I didn’t garner enough trust. That’s on me.”

Vitriol, opposition and question of impropriety

From the moment Woods put on the black robes of the judiciary, she said there was a sustained effort to paint her as inexperienced and a danger to public safety. She has said that she “endured vitriol, misinformation, bias, misunderstanding and pushback from the power structures within the system.”

Some on social media called her a “wicked witch,” a “disgrace,” a “joke” and a “failure,” she wrote in an op-ed piece published in The Colorado Sun. And the La Plata County Republican Party openly opposed her on social media and campaigned against her retention in its 2022 voter pamphlet.

“Woods is a far-left activist Judge, with an abysmal track record,” read the pamphlet. She showed a “blatant disregard” for public safety and the rule of law, it said, and pointed to the Rupert Chee case as an example of her failure.

Chee was free on a personal recognizance bond, meaning he didn’t pay any bail, when he was involved in a fatal rollover crash.

A departing shot on the GOP’s Facebook page called her a “partisan hack” who had no business on the bench in the first place.

La Plata County GOP Chairman David Peters also happens to be a member of the judicial performance commission responsible for evaluating Woods’ performance. The commission voted 6-3 that she met standards.

La Plata County GOP chairman responds

Peters said it was “news” to him that there was a campaign against Woods on Facebook, and denied any bias on his part in carrying out his duties on the judicial review commission.

“There were an awful lot of people in this county that were displeased with the judge’s performance,” he said. “I know that. There were multiple articles in the Herald that highlighted her problems. So while I would like to take credit for the campaigning effort, I think it’s more likely that the victims of Judge Woods were probably more vocal than the rest of us were.”

Peters said there was no need to recuse himself of his duties on the commission because the commission is split between Republicans and Democrats and is held to a strict criteria for evaluating performance.

“We’ve got training we go to every year, and we evaluate judges on the various components of what we are given by the state,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of it. It’s a very thorough, comprehensive system that we have in place to evaluate judges. I think everything was fair and clear and she had more than ample opportunity to respond to our evaluations – which we listen to.”

Role bail, jail and prison play in crime deterrence

Setting high bails and locking people away in jails and prisons does “very, very little” in reducing crime, Woods said.

“That’s the constant battle I’ve been having,” she said. “It didn’t work in California where we tried it for 30-plus years. Do you remember the Three Strikes rule, all those things? I don’t know where society thinks we are going by repeating these policies that didn’t work.”

Tools like drug courts and intensive supervision programs have led to some of the overall lowest crime rates in the U.S. in recent history, Woods said.

“But for some reason our country doesn’t want to accept that, we don’t accept data and statistics,” she said. “We work on human emotion. We want to punish people who do wrong. And I’m one of them. It would be easier to remove criminals from society for awhile, but it’s been tried and it doesn’t work.”

High bail insures people (who can afford it) will show up for trial, but it does not deter crime, she said, and neither does locking people away in prison.

Lessons learned from the bench

Woods learned during her time on the bench that there are a lot of misunderstandings about the legal system, and that being a young female with different ideas is a tough road to hoe.

“And I learned about what not to do,” she said. “I made a lot of mistakes, like I said. I own those and those are on me. It was difficult.”

Biggest mistakes

Not gaining the trust of the community was Woods’ biggest mistake, she said.

“At the end of the day I failed at this job,” she said. “I created a lot of anger. I created hate, even from those who appeared in front of me from time to time. And I was just too loud about my goals, undermining my work and alienating a lot of people by pronouncing I had these goals.”

Woods wished she had been given more time on the bench, and decried the lies told about her, but said at the end of the day “my approach was unsatisfactory and not what the community wanted. And I just wholly failed at garnering the trust that I wanted to garner with our community.”

Silver linings

Incoming judges can look to her experience and avoid the mistakes she made, which is one silver lining, Woods said. And though she doesn’t take the credit, crime in La Plata County did decrease during her time on the bench, she said.

“But this approach, my approach, is working, or at least it isn’t not working,” she said. “I think I’ve laid the groundwork for future judges to continue that work but avoid the decisions I’ve made.”

Her advice to incoming judges is to do the right thing, even when it’s at odds with public sentiment and perception.

“The right thing is rarely the easy thing,” she said. “But do it anyway.”

A final word from the district attorney

“I think she did what she thought was right,” said 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne. “And there were a lot of times I disagreed with her. But she did what she thought was right and that’s what she was there to do, so it’s not something you can really criticize too much.”

What does the future hold for Anne Woods?

“I have no idea,” she said. “To be honest, I’m feeling a little bit lost.”


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