Bills to improve Colorado judicial discipline, workplace culture advanced by lawmakers
Three pieces of bipartisan legislation intended to improve discipline procedures and workplace culture within Colorado’s judicial branch unanimously passed through the Colorado House Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon.
Two of the bills came directly from the Legislative Interim Committee on Judicial Discipline, while the third came from work that continued after the interim committee’s final meeting. Sponsored by judiciary committee chair Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat, and Minority Leader Rep. Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, the first two bills remained relatively unchanged from the interim committee last fall.
The legislation comes after a series of allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct that were first reported in 2021 and substantiated by a scathing third-party report on the judicial branch’s workplace culture released last July.
“If what we’re doing is going to restore some faith in this state, in our judiciary, then we’ve done good work,” Lynch said.
The first piece of legislation would ask Colorado voters to approve a constitutional amendment to establish an independent body, separate from the existing Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, to decide whether a justice or judge engaged in misconduct, as well as weigh in on prosecution or discipline. This new board would only come into play if the commission, through its retained investigatory functions, determines a formal hearing is warranted.
The amendment also would change provisions in the state constitution relating to confidentiality, so that complaint victims are kept up to date with the status of their case’s investigation.
The second bill would change Colorado statutes pertaining to confidential and anonymous reporting throughout the commission’s hearings.
Terry Scanlon, the legislative liaison to Colorado’s Judicial Department, emphasized the importance of bipartisanship when it comes to modifying how the state court system operates, in order to maintain its integrity.
“During the interim committee process it really quickly became pretty clear that our process of judicial discipline is outdated, and this measure will help make us more consistent with more current practices that are occurring in other states,” Scanlon said in testimony on the first bill. “It will help ensure that we have appropriate independence for every entity that is involved in the disciplinary process.”
New ‘judicial ombudsman’
The third bill approved Wednesday would create an Office of Judicial Ombudsman, which would act as a confidential adviser for anyone who is unsure the right course of action to take when it comes to potential misconduct in the department. This bill is sponsored by Lynch and Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat.
The ombuds office would have no investigative powers or direct authority over judicial staff. The goal would be to provide a representative completely separate from the judicial department where people working within the judicial system can seek outside support.
According to the International Ombuds Association, the four key qualities that a functional ombudsman needs are to be confidential, independent, impartial and informal, Scanlon said.
Representatives from the Colorado Women’s Bar Association also testified in favor of the bills, as well as leaders of the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline.
Colorado’s judicial branch came under intense scrutiny in 2021, when former state court administrator Christopher Ryan told The Denver Post he believed a former Judicial Branch chief of staff was awarded a $2.5 million contract to keep her from going public with a threatened sex discrimination lawsuit. This led to the discovery of a long-standing hostile work environment within the department and more alleged misconduct, which in turn led to the creation of the interim committee through legislation last year.
Independent investigators later determined the $2.5 million contract deal that started these investigations was not a quid pro quo and that the Supreme Court chief justice had already decided to award the contract to the employee before learning of her threats. Still, they found that the decision was “steeped in unethical behavior, misconduct and lies,” the Post reported.
Another investigation, this one looking specifically at allegations of harassment and sexism across the Judicial Branch, was delayed because of how many employees came forward to speak with the independent investigators, and ultimately released in July 2022.
“After leading months of investigations and deliberative work with the Interim Committee on Judicial Discipline, we’ve developed legislation and a constitutional amendment that will improve judicial discipline, protect those engaging with the courts, and increase transparency,” Weissman said in a news release.
“Independent oversight will hold the judicial branch accountable when misconduct occurs. Our bipartisan measures will modernize judicial discipline in our state and create a simpler process for filing judicial complaints,” he added. “These measures set in motion a much-needed overhaul of the state’s judicial discipline process to ensure Coloradans can seek justice when inappropriate conduct occurs, increase the transparency of disciplinary actions, and restore trust in our courts.”