On Tuesday, May 28, 2024, Colorado Politics reported that the Colorado Supreme Court clarified the standards for when judges must recuse themselves from cases due to potential bias.

The case involved Khalil Jamandre Sanders, who is serving 32 years in prison for shooting and injuring the driver of another car during a 2017 road rage incident in Colorado Springs. During jury selection for Sanders’ trial, the presiding judge Barbara L. Hughes disclosed that she too had previously been the victim of a roadside shooting a few years prior while driving in Colorado Springs. Hughes said she saw people fighting in the street, honked her horn at them, and then someone shot at her car, hitting her vehicle’s spoiler. She had to duck to avoid the gunfire.

Though there was a police report filed, no charges were ever brought against a suspect. Sanders’ attorney argued that Hughes could not be unbiased in the case given her own personal experience and requested she recuse herself. However, Hughes declined to do so, saying she had no interest in the outcome or parties involved and that her prior experience was dissimilar enough from Sanders’ case.

On appeal, Sanders argued that Hughes was required to recuse under constitutional guarantees of due process, state law, criminal procedure rules, and judicial conduct rules. However, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that due process only requires recusal if a judge is actually biased. They also found that Colorado law did not consider a judge’s prior experience with similar criminal conduct alone to be automatically disqualifying.

The Colorado Supreme Court took up the case to clarify state standards on judicial recusal. In its opinion, the Court affirmed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s due process test is not just actual bias but whether an objective evaluation finds the risk of bias to be “too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” However, the Court found that in this case, enough differences existed between Hughes’ prior experience and Sanders’ offenses that the risk of bias could not reasonably be considered intolerably high. Specifically, Hughes’ incident occurred years prior, she had since overseen several gun crime cases, and it was unclear if her encounter truly qualified as road rage.

Therefore, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ rulings, finding no support for required recusal under the U.S. or Colorado constitutions, state law, procedural rules, or judicial conduct codes on the specific facts presented. The new clarification provides Colorado judges and courts clearer guidance around due process standards for assessing when apparent bias risks require recusal.



Source: Colorado Politics