On Monday, June 10, 2024, Colorado Politics reported that the Colorado Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, rejected a defendant’s challenge to his conviction by a judge who was previously his attorney in a brief hearing. The case highlighted differing views on whether the participation of a statutorily disqualified judge amounts to a structural error requiring automatic reversal of convictions.

The case involved Donald L. Garcia, who was convicted of aggravated motor vehicle theft in Saguache County. Before taking the bench in mid-2018, the presiding judge Amanda C. Hopkins managed the Alamosa public defender’s office, which represented Garcia. Although she was not Garcia’s primary attorney, Hopkins substituted for him at a single hearing in April 2018 when he failed to appear. The proceeding was brief and resulted in the reinstatement of Garcia’s cash bond and rescheduling of the trial.

After his conviction, Garcia’s appellate attorney discovered that Hopkins, who became his trial judge, had also briefly represented him. Garcia challenged Hopkins’ handling of his case, claiming Colorado law required judges to disqualify themselves from any criminal case where they previously served as counsel. A divided Court of Appeals panel agreed that Hopkins was a “biased judge,” affecting the fundamental fairness of Garcia’s trial.

The Supreme Court majority, consisting of the court’s four ex-trial judges, acknowledged Hopkins was statutorily disqualified but did not consider whether this amounted to a structural error requiring automatic reversal. Instead, the majority concluded Garcia relinquished his right to appeal by staying silent, inferring his public defenders Kate Mattern and John Hoag were aware of Hopkins’ conflict but did not raise it.

However, Justice Richard Gabriel dissented, arguing there was no evidence the public defenders knew of the conflict. He felt suggesting they strategically kept silent “unnecessarily impugns the integrity of defense counsel.” Justice Monica Marquez also dissented, agreeing a statutorily biased judge is a structural error but hesitating to mandate automatic reversal without additional analysis.

The majority acknowledged there was no direct proof the public defenders knew, but found it “defies logic” they would be unaware given the small caseload and likelihood Hopkins discussed the hearing with them. The justices warned reversing convictions automatically in such cases could incentivize defendants to secretly keep disqualification objections, hoping for favorable rulings they could later use to obtain new trials.

Gabriel countered structural errors like a biased judge require automatic reversals to protect fairness. A “more logical explanation” was the busy public servants simply did not recall Hopkins’ single past appearance. While the state public defender’s office did not comment on characterizations of the attorneys, the decision highlighted differing judicial philosophies over implied strategic decisions versus good faith mistakes.



Source: Colorado Politics