El Paso County Courthouse

The entrance of the El Paso County Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex on Tejon Street in Colorado Springs.

A judge Thursday vacated his contempt finding against a public defender sanctioned in October after citing a countywide coronavirus infection spike in refusing an order to represent his client at trial.

The reversal by 4th Judicial District Judge Robert Lowrey averted what was supposed to be a sentencing hearing for Adam Steigerwald, a 13-year veteran of the Colorado Springs branch of the Office of Colorado State Public Defender.

"I am satisfied that a lesson has been learned," Lowrey told Steigerwald in throwing out the contempt finding, which could have resulted in six months in jail and a fine. "There are better ways to handle these things than what happened in this courtroom."

The judge’s reversal comes three weeks before his scheduled retirement at the end of March after 22 years on the bench.

Lowrey held Steigerwald in contempt on Oct. 27, the day the attorney refused the judge’s order that he show up in court to represent a client accused of assault. Instead of coming in person, as directed, Steigerwald appeared virtually and told the judge he would not participate in his client’s trial. The judge had previously refused separate requests for postponements and a mistrial.

The standoff over COVID-19 concerns came amid skyrocketing infection rates in El Paso County, including the start of what became a record-setting outbreak at the El Paso County jail in which the vast majority of the more than 1,000 inmates tested positive. El Paso County’s chief judge suspended all jury trials two weeks later.

In a more than hourlong hearing Thursday, neither the judge nor the attorney retreated from their positions that gave rise to the conflict.

Steigerwald apologized to the court and said the rising infections rates added to an “extraordinarily stressful” time when he was struggling to fulfill his professional obligations amid strains caused by the pandemic.

“I didn’t mean to be disrespectful,” he said. “I thought it was the moral thing to do from a health perspective.”

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Lowrey told Steigerwald his conduct was “incredibly unprofessional” and he would make the same contempt finding today if an attorney refused a direct order to trial. The judge repeated his comments from October saying the courts could be thrown into “chaos” if attorneys were permitted to decide which orders to follow and which to ignore.

The judge said if Steigerwald had argued that he or his client were in fear of contracting coronavirus, he would have approved the postponement. Instead, the attorney argued that the infection rates made it unsafe to hold a trial — which Lowrey said he rejected.

“I don’t know that there was a safer place in town than this courthouse,” he said.

Lowrey also said he was “disturbed” by testimony from Rose Roy, the managing attorney in the Public Defender’s Colorado Springs office, who described a policy in which attorneys were advised to refuse to go to court if they felt unsafe. The judge compared the policy to giving someone “permission to commit a crime.”

“It’s a little like drawing a line in the sand and daring someone to step over it,” Lowrey said.

But the judge said he had no desire to damage Steigerwald’s career, and that he was satisfied the attorney had been held to account.

“Maybe you might have learned something about this case and won’t repeat these processes,” he said.

Although Steigerwald appears to be the first public defender to refuse to go to trial citing COVID-19, two public defenders in Larimer County are in a similar dispute with a district judge there, the Denver Post has reported. In November, the attorneys were instructed to file motions arguing why they shouldn’t be held in contempt.

The attorneys are to appear before a different judge Friday for a hearing to schedule further proceedings, said Maureen Cain, a spokeswoman for the state public defender’s office.

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