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Where Does Colorado’s Judicial Discipline Legislation Go From Here?

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Changes Were Made in 2022 but More Are Coming in 2023

The Colorado Judicial Institute believes wholeheartedly in Colorado’s judicial system including its merit selection system. However, a structure as complex as judicial discipline can and should be a living system that evolves to better serve Coloradoans. CJI supported efforts started 2022 to bring more transparency to Colorado’s judicial discipline system by participating in the legislative process. CJI Emeritus Board Member Marilyn Chappell and CJI Executive Director Jeff Rupp submitted written statements to legislators and provided oral testimony at the Colorado Interim Legislative Committee hearings.

Senate Bill 22-201, which passed the Colorado General Assembly with support from both parties in 2022, clarified the Colorado Judicial Department’s disciplinary reporting and provided funding for the Commission on Judicial Discipline independent of the state judicial department. The bill also created an Interim Legislative Committee on Judicial Discipline tasked with further evaluating Colorado’s judicial discipline system and recommending constitutional and statutory changes.

In the summer and fall of 2022, the Interim Committee, a bipartisan group of four Democrat and four Republican legislators, heard testimony from witnesses, including representatives from CJI; consulted experts from non-partisan research organizations; and studied the judicial discipline laws and systems from other states. At the end of their research, the Interim Committee approved a proposed resolution for constitutional changes. That resolution has been introduced in the 2023 legislative session.  If it is passed by the legislature, Colorado citizens will vote on the proposed constitutional changes in 2024.

Under the resolution, an independent Judicial Discipline Adjudicative Board, including judges, lawyers, and non-lawyers, would hear judicial discipline cases and determine penalties. Judicial discipline cases would be as open as other court proceedings once formal proceedings begin. This change would bring Colorado into line with the majority of states for judicial discipline transparency.

“There will be earlier disclosure that a discipline case exists. We will still preserve the confidentiality of complainants, witnesses, and judges in judicial discipline cases, as we protect the confidentiality of anyone in our court system. However, we will give the public better access to data about our judicial discipline system,” said Terry Scanlon, Colorado Judicial Branch Legislative Liaison. “We have always had a robust discipline system with teeth, but this new process will provide more transparency, ensure due process, and modernize the process. The improvements are a good thing for our state.”

“CJI applauds both the bill and the legislature’s bipartisan approach, which is in keeping with CJI’s mission to keep Colorado’s judicial system free of partisan politics,” said Chappell. 

Independent of the proposed constitutional changes, the Colorado legislature will vote on a separate package of statutory changes in the next few weeks. The statutory changes would increase the information about judicial discipline available to the public and make the process easier for individuals to navigate, including establishing an online form for reporting complaints against judges.

Scanlon sincerely hopes the state legislature and the people of Colorado adopt the legislation. “A foundation of our state courts is that when citizens come to court, they can trust that the process is fair and impartial. That the judge isn’t biased for one party or the other,” said Scanlon.  “The Colorado judicial code of ethics upholds this fairness and guides judges on how to do that. When judges violate that code of ethics, there needs to be a response. And the judicial discipline process is that response. The legislative members did a great job talking to each other and talking to stakeholders like CJI while creating this legislation. It was a series of well-thought-out, reasonable compromises. And they came up with a great bipartisan product.”