Catanzarite ready to take the bench in Grand County
Thriving in the face of adversity is nothing new to Nicholas Catanzarite.
The 37-year-old lawyer overcame a devastating skiing accident that left him paralyzed as a teenager. Since then, he competed as a sit-skier in three Paralympic Games, earned his law degree from the University of Denver and was recently appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper as the new judge for Grand County.
He will be sworn in either this Saturday or next Tuesday, replacing outgoing County Judge Ben McClelland, who Grand County voters decided not to retain in November’s election.
Catanzarite grew up in Mishawaka, Ind., but traveled to Grand County regularly with his family who owned a condo in Winter Park. He competed with the Middle Park High School Ski Team. He was paralyzed below the waist in an accident as a senior in high school on the Lower Hughes run at Winter Park.
“I went back home, graduated from high school and went to Michigan State for my undergrad,” he said. “During that time I had a coach named Allen Bender who really encouraged me to come out and give it (sit-skiing) a shot.”
After graduating from Michigan State he moved to Grand County full time in 1999. He became involved with the National Sports Center for the Disabled operating in Winter Park and in 2002 competed in Salt Lake City in his first Paralympics. He went on to compete in the 2006 and 2010 games as well; competing in down hill skiing, super G, giant slalom and regular slalom. He also attended the Paralympics in Sochi Russia in 2014 volunteering as an Athlete Services Coordinator.
Catanzarite has a general law practice in Winter Park that he is currently transitioning out of to become county judge. He has worked primarily in criminal defense but also in a broad variety of other legal areas including property law and land law.
“After I got my degree and started practicing I saw myself gravitating towards being a third party neutral type. I thought being a judge would be a great fit,” said Catanzarite. “I love being an advocate and an attorney, but when this opened I saw a great opportunity and I am really excited to have been appointed.”
A judge’s role
The soon to be adjudicator discussed his viewpoint on the role of the judiciary.
“I think the role of a judge is to facilitate due process, which means making sure that people know they are getting a fair hearing, treating people with respect, having patience and making fair decisions based on the law.”
The youthful judge will have his work cut out for him when he takes his seat on the bench.
“I expect a steep learning curve, but it is something I embrace,” he said. “My whole life I have felt like there is always a new challenge and always something new to learn.”
Catanzarite was one of 10 members of the Commission on Judicial Performance for the 14th Judicial District. Last summer that Commission recommended voters not retain Judge McClelland. Before his final appointment by the governor, Catanzarite was one of three individuals short-listed for the judicial appointment in Grand County.
When asked if he felt his position on the Commission on Judicial Performance was a conflict of interest in light of his appointment to fill the vacant seat he said no emphatically.
“I do not feel it is a conflict of interest,” he said. “I had no control over the nominating or appointment process. The two things operate independently. As a member of the Performance Commission I am bound by confidentiality requirements and cannot comment on any internal matters of the commission.”
The Commission on Judicial Performance voted 6-4 to recommend not retaining Judge McClelland. Their vote was only a recommendation and the official decision on retention was made by Grand County voters in the general election.
“Rightly or wrongly, when a judge is not retained I think it indicates a lack of trust in the judiciary,” he said. “My hope would be that I can help to rebuild the public trust in the Grand County Judiciary.”
Catanzarite hopes with his new role he will still have time for his athletic passions.
“I still ski and I hope I can get some time on the mountain at the end of the day,” he joked.
“I just want to express my gratitude to the people of Grand County,” he said in closing. “I am honored to be their judge and I am looking forward to serving this county that I have gotten so much from throughout my life.”
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