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Judicial discipline committee advances two reform bills to full Colorado Legislature

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Judicial discipline committee advances two reform bills to full Colorado Legislature

Oct 01, 2022 | 6:00 am ET
By Lindsey Toomer
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Judicial discipline committee advances two reform bills to full Colorado Legislature
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A photograph of the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

In its final meeting, Colorado’s Legislative Interim Committee on Judicial Discipline on Friday advanced two pieces of legislation to next year’s full General Assembly, but it held a third piece for additional work and review. 

The two measures that the committee unanimously approved after amendments will originate in the state House, with committee chair Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat, and Rep. Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, serving as its primary sponsors.

The first piece proposes bringing a question to the Colorado electorate around changes to the state’s Constitution, while the second modifies Colorado statutes.

The third piece that was held for more work would create an ombudsman office to help both employees and members of the public better understand the judicial discipline process.

The first resolution would ask voters to change Article VI of the Colorado Constitution under Section 23, concerning the retirement and removal of justices and judges. One of the proposed changes would create an independent body separate from the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline to decide whether a justice or judge engaged in misconduct, as well as weigh in on prosecution or discipline. The commission would retain its investigatory functions.

The new body would only come into play if the commission, through its investigation, decides a formal hearing is warranted because “the evidence and the level of misconduct takes it beyond an informal remedial action or private discipline,” Rep. Terri Carver, vice chair of the interim committee, said during a previous meeting. The proceedings of the independent body would be public, as currently any such proceedings remain confidential. Carver said Colorado is currently one of “very few states” where these proceedings take place behind closed doors.

The body would be composed of four judges, four lawyers and four citizens, with one of each being randomly selected to handle each case, excluding any potential conflicts of interest. Judges would be appointed by the Colorado Supreme Court, while lawyers and citizens would be appointed by the governor, with Senate confirmation required for both. 

Another change​​ legislators hope to see in the Constitution would allow the commission to keep complaint victims up to date on their investigations prior to any formal proceedings. Other than this, investigations remain confidential until they are brought to a formal hearing.

The second resolution would change Colorado statutes pertaining to confidential and anonymous reporting throughout the commission’s hearings. It would also cement in statutes how discipline data and metrics are tracked and reported publicly, but in a way that keeps specific details of a complaint confidential unless it goes to a public hearing. 

Both resolutions had an amendment adopted during the interim committee’s final meeting, the text of which is not yet available online. The proposed legislation doesn’t differ much from what resulted following the committee’s last meeting in mid-August, when the three ideas were given to staff to draft into actual resolutions. Some issues, including subpoena power and criminal penalties, were not included in the amended bills and can be further considered by the General Assembly next year. 

If the bills make it through the Legislature next year, Colorado voters would be asked to approve the constitutional amendments during the 2024 election. 

The interim committee formed after former state court administrator Christopher Ryan told The Denver Post last year he believed a former Judicial Branch chief of staff was awarded a $2.5 million contract to keep her from going public with years worth of alleged misconduct from judicial department officials in a threatened sex discrimination lawsuit. Independent investigators later determined the deal 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. The report on this investigation came out July 11 and detailed multiple individual allegations as well as the overall problematic power culture within the department.