Debra M. Gunkel

Judge Debra M. Gunkel

The Colorado Supreme Court censured a part-time Baca County judge and accepted her retirement on Thursday for failing to maintain high judicial standards and abusing the prestige of her office following multiple drunk driving arrests.

Debra M. Gunkel, a lawyer and county judge in southeastern Colorado with a 20% workload, agreed with the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline that police arrested her in January 2018 for driving under the influence in Prowers County. Gunkel told the officers she was a judge and asked them to take her home.

She pleaded guilty and received a fine of $100 plus a two-year probationary sentence. However, less than a year later, Gunkel was arrested once more in Kansas for DUI. She again told law enforcement personnel that she was a judge.

"In light of concerns about whether litigants might question your impartiality and fairness in cases involving DUI charges and probation revocation complaints," the Supreme Court's unsigned order explained, "the Chief Judge in the 15th Judicial District ordered that no DUI or probation revocation cases would be assigned to you."

Gunkel admitted her second DUI violated the terms of her probation, and an outside judge for the Prowers County case instituted a new sentence of community service and an alcohol evaluation. For her DUI in Kansas, a court sentenced her to another suspended sentence, requiring house arrest and fines in lieu of jail.

The Supreme Court censured Gunkel for failing to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary and for abusing the prestige of her judicial office. She also agreed to retire within three days.

Jeffrey A. Wolf, a criminal defense attorney in Denver, said that a prosecutor would likely be more concerned about Gunkel's experiences with the law than the defendants who came before her.

"In my experience, judges whose lives have been touched by the system are more understanding to the defendants in their courtrooms," Wolf said.

However, Ann Roan of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, observed the Supreme Court's order did not detail when the chief judge removed Gunkel from handling DUI cases. 

“When you’re on probation, the DA holds the keys to the jail," Roan said, noting that Gunkel may have had an incentive to keep prosecutors happy given their power to move to revoke her deferred sentence. Roan believed the judge had a duty to resign or disclose her circumstances in every case.

Gunkel was a 2010 appointee of Gov. Bill Ritter. The performance commission in her judicial district decided by a 5-3 vote in 2018 that she met performance standards as a judge, finding Gunkel was respectful of all litigants but needed to be more prepared and improve her legal knowledge.

The Judicial Department on Friday advertised the vacancy for Gunkel's seat. An attorney representing Gunkel during the disciplinary process did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gunkel is the second state judge to be censured for misconduct in the past month. On April 16, the Supreme Court accepted the resignation of Arapahoe County District Judge Natalie T. Chase for using the N-word in front of Black court employees, and for other workplace misconduct. In December 2019, the Court also censured Mesa County District Court Judge Lance P. Timbreza following his DUI, and suspended him for 28 days without pay.

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