For 24 years, Wardell, 52, has been meting out justice to the county's 700 residents—people who make their living hunting, fishing and mining in the rugged country of central Colorado. One of 16 lay judges elected to preside in isolated, sparsely populated communities in the state, he needed neither a law degree nor a college diploma—which was convenient, since he doesn't have either. But Wardell's record is one that the most learned of judges might envy. Of the 10,000 cases he has tried so far, only two were appealed, and both appeals were denied. "He's the best judge we've had," says Creede Sheriff Phil Leggitt. "Course, he's the only judge we've had since I've been in the law business."
Wardell's job isn't particularly demanding legally. Crime in Creede (pop. 400), a sleepy silver-mining town, tends toward minor brawls and traffic violations, and Mineral County's remaining 900 square miles are more attractive to deer and elk than to outlaws. The gravest case his court can handle carries a one-year maximum sentence. Accordingly, His Honor's style is neighborly and not confrontational. No lawyers clutter his courtroom—"Their absence speeds things up," he says—and most trials start off with joshing and small talk between the court and the accused. "I take my time to let defendants say all they have to say, no rush," Wardell explains. "Then I get more formal toward the end."
Often, arriving at a verdict is the least of his tasks. He remembers the time a young bride, keeping house for a demanding husband in a remote mountain cabin, got herself arrested on a hunting violation. "I give her a suspended sentence, and she rares up and says, 'Like hell you will!' " Wardell recalls. "She wanted jail time to get away from her husband. I had a talk with him right then. He agreed to help with the chores, and I sent them home."
Wardell's folk wisdom, as well as his ease on the bench, comes from a lifetime spent pumping gas—and perhaps from his own youthful follies. Born in Creede to an ailing mother and a father who split, he was raised by an aunt and an uncle who ran the local hardware store. Wardell was a hell-raiser and spent a night in jail when he was 12. "They said it was for riding my bike on the sidewalk," the judge recalls, "but I think it was to teach me a lesson about the law." Chastened somewhat, he went on to lead his high school basketball team to the state championship finals in Denver. After two years at Western Texas University and a stint in the Army, he came home, married Margaret Poxson, his high school sweetheart, and started a family. (He and Margaret now have three grown children.) He was named justice of the peace in 1962 and county judge two years later. "I was still a bit ornery and rowdy at the time," says Wardell. "The town fathers figured they'd kill two birds with one stone—fill those jobs and get rid of a potential problem."
As far as Creede is concerned, that bit of municipal planning worked just about perfectly. Maybe it's the lingering memory of his basketball glories or the fact that he has never sent anyone to state prison (though he has put a few people in the Creede jail), but Mineral County couldn't be happier with the judge it's got, and voters reelect him in a landslide every four years. The job doesn't pay much—about $7,000 a year—but Wardell is happy to have it. "I've learned so much about people in this job," he says. "For me, the living is about as good as it can get."
Most Fridays, as the sun heads down toward the Colorado pines, gas station owner Robert Wardell bids farewell to his pumps and climbs into his battered jeep. Cruising the main street of Creede, his hometown, he pauses to chat if the mood strikes him, arrives at the courthouse in midafternoon, kisses the county clerk, who doubles as his wife, Margaret, slips out of his coveralls and into black robes, then assumes his place on the bench. The Mineral County Court is in session.