When delays and missed deadlines in 2011 began to chip away at order in her court, 4th Judicial District Judge Theresa Cisneros didn’t opt for restraint.
She went heavy — ordering District Attorney Dan May to the stand to answer for trial postponements that kept defendants in limbo, and even dismissing a drug-smuggling case against an ex-prison guard over rule violations.
Although she later reinstated the drug case, her message to prosecutors was clear, Cisneros said in a recent interview.
“The message was, I expected them to follow the rules,” she said.
For Cisneros, who retired Monday after 22 years on the bench, ensuring that rules were followed became her core mission in El Paso County District Court, which hears the county’s most serious criminal cases, along with complex lawsuits, divorces and child custody battles.
She wasn’t afraid to “rattle” things when efforts fell short, as she put it, or to shrug off what she calls “hurt feelings” that resulted.
“If we’re agreeing with the DA’s Office all the time, or they’re agreeing with us all the time, there’s probably something wrong, because that’s not how the system is set up,” she said.
While taking turns presiding over every type of docket on offer, Cisneros carved out a reputation as an unbending referee, poised to crack down on misbehavior wherever she found it.
Lawyers coming late or unprepared were a frequent target, and spectators quickly learned they weren’t immune from scrutiny.
Chatting in a back row might earn a pointed shushing from Cisneros, who demanded a respectful silence in the gallery, but ringing cellphones set off a smoldering display.
When a cellphone chirped at a recent hearing during a first-degree murder case, Cisneros, diminutive in stature at about 5 feet tall, summoned an outsize force as she ripped into the owner, “Sir! I will take your phone!”
The man left grumbling and didn’t return.
The focus on the rules is meant to protect the system, Cisneros says. Minding them maintains the courts’ reputation as a neutral forum, where anyone can get a fair shake, everyone is treated with seriousness, and rulings are respected.
“Our courts are losing respect of people,” she said. “Open up the newspaper. The courts are under attack.”
Running a tight ship in the courtroom is a first step in repairing the damage, she said, because it tells the public they are engaging in serious business.
“I found that just starting on time makes a big difference,” said Cisneros, who was notorious for her fast-moving dockets and short patience for delays.
The Denver native grew up in poverty with five siblings, largely under the watch of a single father who struggled with alcoholism.
In a loving but chaotic household, she was 9 or 10 when she inherited the responsibility of procuring groceries for the family.
She and her brother would walk to the market, make their purchases and push the cart all the way home.
“I had to make the food stamps last the whole month,” she said.
Cisneros gravitated toward the law after getting a job in high school as a typist at a law firm.
She was an ace at shorthand, and a lawyer recognized her smarts.
“That introduced me to a whole different world.”
Without realizing it, she already had honed skills that would help her succeed.
“Organization is my talent,” she said. “I can take something that’s normally chaotic and put organization to it.”
Through personal hardship, Cisneros said, she gleaned insight into the value of keeping families together, even under imperfect circumstances.
During a tenure as presiding Juvenile Court judge in El Paso County, she tried to relax family management plans, shedding requirements she deemed too onerous. If a judge couldn’t accomplish her order, then it was a bad order, she told colleagues, urging them to tailor such plans to what is needed.
“We’re not in the business of creating perfect people,” she said. “Saddle them with too many requirements, and they fail.”
Her leniency didn’t extend to attorneys in custody battles, who were held to high standards, no matter the competing demands on their time, she said.
“When you’re dealing with families and children’s lives, how much is enough?”
With the late Judge Barney Iuppa, who died in 2016, Cisneros helped found Court Care for the Pikes Peak Region, a nonprofit that provides free, on-site child care to parents with business in court, sparing their children from custody hearings and criminal proceedings.
With Judges David Prince and David Shakes, she helped develop Judicially Speaking, a statewide public education program that teaches children about the role of the judiciary. In 2015, the program was honored by the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit that works to improve the administration of justice.
Cisneros worked as a Colorado Springs public defender and a private defense attorney before she was named to the bench in 1997 by Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, becoming the first Latina in Colorado’s state courts.
It’s a proud but sad distinction, given how overdue it was, Cisneros said.
On the eve of her retirement, she complained that El Paso County District Court, with its 22 courtrooms, doesn’t have a single African-American judge, a gap in perspectives on the bench.
“It affects how the community sees the bench,” she said. “If we want the community to have respect for the bench, maybe the bench should mirror the community.”
Cisneros said the job’s relentless pace helped convince her it was time to step aside, recounting the short retirements of judges who left the bench late in life only to die within months. She will take 90 days to figure out her next steps but plans to apply for a position as a senior judge, which could keep her in District Court as an occasional substitute.
Cisneros, who is married to longtime criminal defense attorney Kent Gray, has three children and two grandchildren.
The vacancy she left was filled by Chad Miller, a former Colorado Springs public defender appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper to succeed her.
Even in the final weeks of her tenure, Cisneros made waves.
During a trial involving a woman who was hunted down and shot in the face after witnessing an attack in the city’s Knob Hill neighborhood, Cisneros learned that a juror had been texting her boyfriend — a spectator in the gallery — through testimony and deliberations.
Despite numerous warnings, the panelist acted as if her job were a lark, joking with her boyfriend over a prosecutor he nicknamed “McGrumpy” and leaking word of the verdict before it was announced.
“For crying out loud,” Cisneros thought to herself, as she called a mistrial for what might have been the last time.
“The rules are there to make sure the parties have a fair trial.”