On Tuesday, May 9, 2023, Colorado Politics reported that in November 2024, Colorado voters will have the opportunity to shape the future of the state’s judicial discipline system. This pivotal decision comes after a series of revelations surrounding an insider-deal contract and allegations of misconduct within the judiciary.

To address these concerns, the Colorado legislature has formally approved a proposed amendment, House Concurrent Resolution 23-1001, that aims to replace the current 56-year-old method of judicial discipline with one that prioritizes transparency and accountability.

The accompanying House Bill 23-1019 outlines the procedures for the new judicial discipline system, while House Bill 23-1205 establishes an ombudsperson’s office within the Judicial Department. This office will serve as a resource for individuals with misconduct concerns and guide them through the complaint process. Whether someone chooses to file a formal complaint or seeks resolution through informal means, the ombudsperson’s office will provide support and advocacy. This initiative reflects the commitment to addressing misconduct concerns promptly and effectively.

Governor Jared Polis will receive these bills. The governor is not required to sign off on the amendment resolution.

Recognizing the importance of enhancing transparency and independent decision-making within the judicial process, bipartisan judicial discipline reforms were introduced to address the shortcomings of the current system.

Representative Mike Weissman, the chairman of the committee responsible for drafting the legislation, emphasized the significance of these reforms in bolstering accountability in state government.

The amendment received overwhelming support, with a tally of 97-1, but Representative Rod Bockenfeld, a Watkins Republican, stood as the lone holdout, expressing concerns about potential overreach and the impact on the separation of powers.

In a statement, Bockenfield stated, “I believe the justices will be challenging certain aspects of the commission and will probably prevail.”

Despite differing opinions, the overwhelming support for the proposed amendment in both the Senate and House of Representatives highlights the bipartisan commitment to achieving meaningful change.

Key Changes Proposed

If approved by Colorado voters, the proposed amendment will introduce several crucial changes to the state’s judicial discipline system. These changes aim to address the existing flaws and improve accountability within the judiciary. Let’s explore the key revisions:

1. Selection of Judicial Members

Under the current system, judges primarily select the members of the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline. However, the proposed amendment seeks to introduce a more diverse and randomized selection process. The State Court Administrator would be responsible for randomly selecting a pool of district and county court judges. From this pool, the Supreme Court would then choose two judges from each list, ensuring a fair and impartial composition of the commission.

2. Adjudication of Discipline Cases

The current system relies on three special masters appointed by the Supreme Court to hear formal misconduct charges and recommend discipline to the high court. The proposed amendment aims to establish a new method of adjudication that includes a three-person adjudicative panel. This panel would consist of one judge, one attorney, and one citizen, all chosen from a pool of qualified individuals. The Supreme Court’s role in this revised process would be limited to appellate review, removing their authority to approve or reject disciplinary actions.

3. Recusal of Supreme Court Justices

To ensure impartiality and avoid conflicts of interest, the proposed amendment introduces a requirement for Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from cases involving other justices, their family members, or if they are to be a witness. In such instances, a seven-person panel comprised of judges from across the state would replace the recused justices. This change aims to eliminate any potential bias and maintain the integrity of the disciplinary process.

4. Public Disclosure of Discipline Cases

Currently, discipline cases remain confidential until the Supreme Court receives a recommendation of discipline from the commission. The proposed amendment seeks to increase transparency by making formal filings, trials, and verdicts of discipline cases accessible to the public. This change would provide greater visibility into the disciplinary process and ensure accountability in the handling of misconduct allegations.

5. Rulemaking Process

In the current system, the Supreme Court holds significant influence over the creation of procedural rules for discipline cases. The proposed amendment calls for a more collaborative approach by establishing a panel of 13 individuals responsible for rulemaking. This panel would consist of four members appointed by the Supreme Court, four appointed by the adjudicative board, four appointed by the commission, and a victim’s advocate appointed by the governor. This inclusive approach aims to incorporate multiple perspectives and ensure a fair and balanced rulemaking process.

The impetus for these reforms can be traced back to a judiciary scandal that emerged nearly five years ago. It all began with the revelation of an insider-deal contract, which raised serious questions about the existing system’s integrity. The subsequent investigations exposed a range of financial irregularities and questionable conduct involving former Chief of Staff Mindy Masias, who was involved in various forms of misconduct, involving falsifying receipts and mishandling expenses.

When faced with termination, Masias threatened to expose years of judicial misconduct in a sex-discrimination lawsuit, contrasting the lenient treatment she received. Masias had previously served as the department’s human resources director and temporarily acted as the executive director of the discipline commission.

The contract given to Masias, which led to her resignation and the termination of Ryan and Brown, was allegedly approved by then-Chief Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats to prevent the lawsuit. While Coats and his counsel denied being influenced by the threat, further investigations supported their claims. The three individuals were referred for criminal investigation, but the case was deemed untimely. The discipline commission faced difficulties in its own inquiry due to delays and obstacles imposed by the Supreme Court, and the funding for independent investigators was jeopardized by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.

As the scandal unfolded, it became apparent that the current method of judicial discipline lacked transparency and failed to hold individuals accountable for their actions. The need for significant reforms was undeniable, and the Colorado legislature recognized the urgency to restore public trust in the judiciary.

Last year, lawmakers moved quickly to establish a separation between the discipline commission’s financial oversight and that of the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel (OARC), as well as to establish a special committee to gather testimony about potential changes to the discipline process. Many people spoke about their experiences and drew attention to problems within the Judicial Department, where an outside investigator discovered a toxic workplace environment that discouraged women from filing complaints against judges. Ryan insisted that the Masias contract was a quid-pro-quo arrangement in spite of the investigator’s conflicting conclusions.

The chairman of the committee and a fervent supporter of judicial reform, Senator Pete Lee, resigned after being accused of voting from the wrong address in El Paso County. However, the charges were ultimately dropped because it was discovered that the OARC’s paperwork contained errors. Lee, whose tenure was coming to an end, left the statehouse.

Meanwhile, as the legislature reviewed three drafted bills, the discipline commission made an unprecedented move by recommending a formal public censure of Chief Justice Coats. This marked the first instance in state history that a member of the high court, especially the chief justice, faced censure for misconduct. The recommendation now awaits approval or denial from a special tribunal comprising seven Court of Appeals judges who have replaced the Supreme Court in this case. All seven justices recused themselves from the Coats case in accordance with new rules adopted in January.

The proposed constitutional amendments, if approved by voters in November 2024 will reshape the way Colorado handles judicial misconduct and set a precedent for other states to follow. The bipartisan efforts and commitment to addressing the shortcomings of the current system demonstrate Colorado’s commitment to upholding the principles of justice and fairness in its judicial branch.


Source: Colorado Politics