A face every Aspen defendant can love | AspenTimes.com
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A face every Aspen defendant can love

Chad Abraham
John Van Ness' 1969 GTO hasn't run in five years, but Van Ness estimates he has driven it more than 700,000 miles. He's also gone through several engines. (Mark Fox/Aspen TImes Weekly)
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The hippie had a history of picking through garbage. And it just might have swayed the jurors when the young man was charged with killing dogs.This was the first jury trial of John Van Ness’ career as a defense attorney.”Basically a bunch of dogs got poisoned. They caught my guy in the Dumpster, near where these dogs were getting poisoned, and decided he was the man” responsible, Van Ness recalled. “It turned out he was just a hippie garbage-picker type.”

At the time of his arrest, the Dumpster-diver was perusing the refuse behind the Crystal Palace, where every customer received the same size steak.The Crystal kitchen staff trimmed each piece to the same dimensions, Van Ness explained, “so you don’t have any of this ‘How come your piece is bigger than mine?’ … And they take the trimmings, which can add up to a whole lot of good food, and throw them in the Dumpster.”Thus was born the “garbage-picker” defense. The first question Van Ness asked – “How old were you when you first picked garbage?” – caused a collective double take in the courtroom.”And he described how this girl, little Nancy, when he was a kindergartner, had two cupcakes. One was perfectly good and she dumped in it the trash, and he grabbed it,” he remembered.Suddenly, Van Ness’ client was just a guy who happened to pick through garbage, but not necessarily a dog-killer.The client was acquitted, an early indication of Van Ness’ acumen and ability to look at facts and situations from atypical perspectives. In the hands of another lawyer, it is unlikely the jury would have heard about little Nancy. So began the career of one of the Roaring Fork Valley’s best-known and most experienced defense attorneys.

Van Ness, 66, is a product of northeastern New Jersey, mainly the towns of Montclair and Belleville. His father worked in defense factories during World War II and later was an engineer in the plastics industry. His mother was a homemaker who watched over John and his two younger brothers.After earning an undergraduate degree in economics from Yale in 1962 – President John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement speech – Van Ness enrolled in Stanford’s graduate business school, where “some roommate or whatever said, ‘Let’s go to Aspen.'”At the time he wasn’t ready for a permanent move to the upper valley. But, as he put it, he didn’t desire the life of “an assistant comptroller” either. He had also disavowed the idea of an accounting career, after a mere 90 minutes in a bookkeeping class. Instead, Van Ness earned a degree from the New York University School of Law and became a lawyer for a Wall Street investment firm.Aspen’s scenery remained in the back of his mind, however. He came back to stay in 1972, citing first the natural beauty, followed closely by the residents. Five years later, he was elected to the City Council.”It was very educational,” he said. “If you want to solve a problem, the worst way to do it is government.”

His duties as a councilman didn’t stop him from simultaneously taking the one-day-per-week job of insertion boss at The Aspen Times (mainly for the health insurance). He also hosted many a riverside party at his place on East Hopkins Avenue and attended more soirees at City Hall. City employees at that time would hold a party for virtually any reason, be it the birthday of a staffer or Thomas Jefferson.Van Ness now lives just downvalley from Woody Creek, in a home with views of Aspen Mountain, Hayden Peak and Mount Sopris.In his office, a poster by local artist Tom Benton features the Shakespeare quote, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” but on Van Ness’ copy, “kill” is changed to “kiss.” Van Ness has an easy, uproarious laugh and a candid sense of humor. A small, archaic sign in the living-room window reads: “Smoking Permitted in this area.”Behind the door of his office are several name tags from past conferences of Norml, a group working to reform the nation’s marijuana laws. Marijuana has never killed anyone, he noted, before correcting himself. He told the story of a 200-pound bale of the drug that fell from a smuggler’s plane during an aerial police chase and killed an unfortunate gentleman on the ground.”There’s no such thing as never,” he laughed.Van Ness also has strong feelings about civil liberties and the powers of government. Regarding the current controversy over the Bush Administration’s surveillance and data mining of Americans’ phone records, Van Ness is disheartened by many people’s apparent indifference.

“They just sit back and say, ‘It doesn’t affect me,'” he said. “I was by no means surprised to learn the government was snooping on people. My God, this is nothing new. But this power grab by the executive branch is really unprecedented.”Like many in Woody Creek, Van Ness came to know Hunter S. Thompson, the late author. Thompson, while known to have considerable contempt for authority, didn’t actually cross the line with law enforcement all that often. But when he allegedly did, Thompson would mount a ferocious defense.Van Ness assisted, with two other lawyers, in defending the writer on a drunk-driving charge in the 1990s. The charge was dropped, and Van Ness would work with Thompson on other cases as well. Thompson’s gonzo lifestyle was a public persona, Van Ness said, but privately he found the writer to be an intelligent person who respected the role of defense attorneys.

When asked what sets Van Ness apart from other attorneys, his colleagues and courtroom opponents speak with a common voice.Lauren Wolpin, a fellow defense attorney in Aspen, has sought out Van Ness as her co-counsel on cases. She succinctly summed up her feelings about him.”He cares,” she said.That sentiment was shared by his regular opponent in Pitkin County court.”He’s very good at not only negotiations, but making you see his client as a person. He’s very, very good at that, so you see all the good things,” said Deputy District Attorney Gail Nichols of the 9th Judicial District. “Most people have the good things, but we tend to focus on what they’re doing wrong rather than what they’ve done right.”She described his personality as even-keeled and entertaining, even in a courtroom.”Anywhere. You can shoot the breeze with him for an hour, and you don’t mind doing it because he’s so nice,” Nichols said. “Everyone in this courthouse – this office, upstairs, everywhere – we all bend over backward for him because he’s so nice to us.”He is also persistent during negotiations, unafraid to spend hours in a prosecutor’s office hashing out case details and plea agreements.”He’s done it all” when it comes to the law, Nichols said. But “it’s more than just knowledge of the law. It really is understanding how you get to [understand] people so we give his client a better deal. And usually you never feel bad about it.”

Van Ness is an avid and accomplished bridge player. He is the head of two large bridge organizations in the western United States and travels often to bridge tournaments and meetings. The game is not unlike practicing law.A British card-game website, http://www.right-way.co.uk/cardgames, describes bridge this way: “Your partnership must continually assess your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses – in relation to your own – so as best to counter, or attack, whatever strategies they choose.””It’s a very challenging game, puzzle-solving,” Van Ness said. “Just like solving cases.”He is also a skilled tour guide – of the downhill and flat parts of the area. Van Ness gets occasional calls from friends with elderly parents coming to town. They want to know how they can help their relatives take in the sights without strain.

“Years ago, my parents would come out every year,” he said. “I didn’t want to kill them. I knew where to go: You go up to the Grottos, take the handicap path and go to the ice caves; and then go up to Lostman Reservoir, to where the diversion ditch goes under the road. You can walk along there and there’s hardly any increase in elevation. You can go up to the Maroon Bells parking lot, and if you park in the right place, you can keep it level.”It suited his father, who gave his son the advice, “Never walk when you can sit.”And now, after more than three decades in Woody Creek and Aspen, Van Ness is sitting pretty.”I know everybody and everybody knows me,” he said. “It’s a whole lot easier than it used to be.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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