On Monday, July 3, 2023, The Denver Gazette reported that the state of Colorado is set to implement a new judicial discipline system, but Denver County judges will not be affected by this reform.

Currently, Denver’s 19 county jurists operate under an autonomous city judicial discipline commission, separate from the state panel that oversees other judges in Colorado. While 339 district and county court judges across the state will have to comply with the changes, Denver’s county court judges will continue to answer to their own commission, which closely resembles the methods that voters are being asked to reform.

According to Denver commission officials, they are closely monitoring the outcome of the statewide vote on the reform proposal. If the proposal is approved, the city’s commission will likely adopt similar changes, although this process could take months and require another vote from the city’s electorate.

The proposed reforms to Colorado’s Commission on Judicial Discipline were developed after months of public testimony and extensive hearings at the General Assembly. The reforms aim to make the disciplinary process more transparent by transforming the current secret proceedings into a more open and accountable system. One of the key changes includes the creation of an ombudsman’s office, where individuals with concerns about alleged misconduct can seek information, support, and guidance in pursuing a complaint. This particular change does not require voter approval.

While Denver voters will have the opportunity to vote on the proposed amendment, it will not have any impact on Denver’s county court judges. The city’s judicial discipline rules remain separate and continue to rely on a process that is shrouded in secrecy, with the ultimate decision on disciplinary actions resting with the mayor.

The fact that the proposed reforms will not impact Denver’s county judges came as a surprise to legislators involved in the process. Senator Julie Gonzales, co-chair of the legislative committee that conducted the hearings, expressed her lack of awareness regarding Denver’s own judicial discipline commission.” We thought this would apply to them and we believed the rules we contemplated would include all judges. We would have addressed this challenge had we been aware the challenge existed.”, Gonzales added.

Committee chairman Representative Mike Weissman shared the sentiment of surprise and acknowledged the need for an update in Denver’s judicial discipline system similar to the reforms being implemented at the state level.

Denver’s disciplinary system for county judges closely mirrors the state’s current method. In both systems, a single entity has the authority to approve public censure of a judge. For the state commission, this entity is the seven-member Supreme Court, while in Denver, the mayor has the final say on whether to discipline a county judge and how to do so.

However, there are some differences between the two systems. While the city’s commission recommends public censure to the mayor, it also has the power to issue private admonishments that do not reach City Hall. In contrast, the state commission makes its own determination or forwards a recommendation from a three-judge panel to the Supreme Court for approval or rejection.

The Denver Judicial Discipline Commission has been closely following the work of the state interim committee and the resulting legislation. Although the Denver County Court is not part of the state court system affected by the legislative changes, the commission intends to use the state’s recommendations and legislative changes as a framework for its own revisions. The commission is committed to examining and revising its rules, which may involve amending the Denver City Charter, evaluating the role of the City Council and the city attorney, and seeking input from the new administration.

Councilman Kevin Flynn emphasized the importance of updating Denver’s procedures for judicial complaints to align with the statewide improvements. He recognized the need to address increasing public scrutiny and restore public trust in the judicial system.

The Denver Judicial Discipline Commission has been considering rewriting its rules to align with the state’s for several years. In 2013, the commission initiated the process but it was put on hold due to a complaint filed with the commission. It is unclear if this complaint was related to the case involving Judge Andrew Armatas, which resulted in a federal lawsuit filed by a courtroom clerk accusing the city of wrongful termination after reporting sexual assault and harassment by the judge.

Over the years, the commission’s reports indicated ongoing efforts to revise its rules. However, various factors, including the need to be in sync with the state’s rules and the impact of COVID-19, delayed the completion of the revisions. The commission remains committed to rewriting its rules and will use the state’s recommendations and legislative changes as a guide.

The need for statewide reforms in Colorado’s judicial discipline system arose from a scandal in 2019 involving a multi-million-dollar contract awarded to a former top official of the Judicial Department. The contract was canceled, and several individuals were fired or resigned. A subsequent state audit revealed issues with the procurement process.

In 2021, newspaper accounts uncovered allegations of judicial misconduct that were allegedly overlooked or dealt with leniently. The former official awarded the contract allegedly threatened to reveal these details in a sex-discrimination lawsuit. As a result, the state’s judicial discipline commission faced challenges in obtaining information and cooperation from the judicial branch and the Supreme Court.

The state legislature took action to address these issues, leading to the proposed reforms and the creation of a three-person panel to hear discipline cases brought by the state commission. The reforms aim to improve the accountability and transparency of the judicial discipline process in Colorado.

 

Source: The Denver Gazette