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August 2002

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


The Best Job in the U.S. Two Magistrate Judges Call Parks Home

All of America’s national parks feature natural beauty, but only two—Yellowstone and Yosemite—feature federal courthouses.

Both sprawling parks also have resident magistrate judges.

Magistrate Judge Hollis Best has presided in California’s Yosemite National Park since 1994, after working in the California state court system. An experienced hiker, fisherman and horseback rider, he says his assignment is ideal.

"I once described it as being as close as you can get to heaven and still be in the legal profession," Best said.

Magistrate Judge Stephen Cole, who has presided in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park since 1981, views his job similarly.

"I thought, my goodness, I can live in a place like this and use my law degree to do something I like, which is being a judge." A Wyoming native, Cole came to Yellowstone after being a part-time magistrate elsewhere in the state.

Yellowstone, established in 1872, is the world’s first and oldest national park. Cole’s jurisdiction stretches over an area more than three times the size of Rhode Island. Best’s jurisdiction extends beyond Yosemite to include the Stanislaus National Forest and Bureau of Land Management territory adjoining Yosemite and Stanislaus.

The work of their respective courts in many ways reflects the work of urban federal courts. Many cases involve alcohol-related violations. But a judge who has Old Faithful, giant sequoias or El Capitan and countless wild animals in his jurisdiction is bound to see some distinctive cases. Tourists throwing objects into geyser vents, base jumpers parachuting off cliffs and people trying to sneak out elk antlers for commercial purposes are part of the criminal docket for these judges and their small staffs. The magistrate judges handle mostly misdemeanor offenses in the parks, but if a felony case should arise, they will handle the preliminary work and then send the case to the district court. As there is no clerk’s office at either park, no civil cases are filed there.

The rustic ambience, however, stops at the courthouse door. Inside, business dress is required.

"I try to keep it more uptown. That’s what I’m used to," said Best. And Cole, although partial to cowboy boots, added, "If I want them to wear a tie, I should wear one, too."

Federal law requires both magistrate judges to live in or very near the park. The Yosemite courthouse sits at the foot of cliffs on the north side of Yosemite Valley, about a quarter mile east of Yosemite Falls, and Best’s home is just 200 yards away.

Built in 1956, the house has no air conditioning or central heating, but the commute is convenient. When heavy rains melted snow in the Sierras in January of 1997 and caused massive flooding, roads were inaccessible for three days. But Best made it to his courthouse each of those days, and his court remained open and in operation the entire time.

The Yellowstone courthouse is in Mammoth Hot Springs, near the park’s north entrance and not far from the Wyoming-Montana border.

"My commute is about an eight-minute walk," Cole said. "Except for some trees, I can actually see my house from the courthouse." Bears and moose are sometime visitors to his backyard, and then there is the jail cell.

Installed when the house was built, it was intended to be a temporary space for U.S. Marshals Service prisoners. Since 1981, the cell has been home to a piano.

Summing up his job satisfaction, Cole said, "In the fall, I can sit here [in his courthouse office] and see elk grazing on the lawn. It’s the best job in the United States."

Courts Forms Moving On-line


Tired of running to the district court clerk’s office every time you need a form? Check the Judiciary’s Internet website at www.uscourts.gov/forms/uscforms.html . Beginning last month, a number of forms became available on-line, and more will be added. The Judiciary’s District Court Forms Working Group has identified nearly 90 more official forms that eventually will find their way to the web as they are converted to PDF format—the most accessible format for public use.

Prior to their Internet posting, forms used by attorneys and other members of the public were available only through clerks’ offices. Website availability eliminates the constant filling of requests by clerks. It also gives users 24-hour access to the most current official forms.

"Electronic accessibility is cheaper than printing and storing forms in a warehouse and mailing them out," said Judge Harvey Schlesinger (M.D. Fla.), chair of the District Court Forms Working Group. "It’s also easier and cheaper to make changes to the forms."

Some of the forms currently posted include the forms for filing for bankruptcy, for filing informa pauperis, a consent form to proceed before a magistrate judge in a misdemeanor case, and forms to order transcripts.