A Toolbox for Colorado’s Courts

State court administrator talks about needs and goals for judiciary

STEVEN VASCONCELLOS

Colorado’s state court administrator, Steven Vasconcellos, stepped into the position permanently last October after having served in an interim role. He refers to his office as a “service agency” that supports Colorado’s courts and advocates for the resources and programs they need. Law Week Colorado sat down with Vasconcellos in February to discuss implications of the state’s double-digit increase in criminal filings, a pilot program to help self-represented litigants in domestic relations cases and a new judicial district. 


LAW WEEK: Last year a bill created a number of new district court judge positions, and I remember an increase in felony filings over the past several years was a particular driver of the need. It’s been not quite a year since that bill was passed. And I’m really curious to know, how is the judicial department gauging whether the new district judge positions that were created are adequate to handle kind of the increase in docket loads that we’ve been seeing?

Note: Senate Bill 43 in 2019 created 15 total new district judge positions across the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 8th, 10th, 13th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 21st Judicial Districts. In his State of the Judiciary address to the legislature, Chief Justice Nathan Coats mentioned a statewide jump in criminal filings as a key reason for the need.

So you’re correct. The primary driver for the request was an over 40% increase in felony criminal filings over the last five-year period. But the other component to remember is that we were not fully staffed on our district court bench prior to that. Our office tracks case filings, and we do workload modeling. 

The basic description is, different types of cases have different kinds of impact. And a small claims case in limited-jurisdiction county court is going to have a very different time and resource impact than a homicide case in district court. So we break our caseload out by some major categories. We do studies every few years with staff and judges so that we understand, what resources do we need? We track that information pretty closely. 

And so even prior to this request, five years ago we weren’t fully staffed. Our request did not bring us to full staffing. Full staffing is sort of unattainable, if you will, in a government context. The General Assembly is constantly balancing more meritorious requests for resources across state government than they have money to actually fund, and so it’s very rare that agency is fully resourced to their needs. 

And so in that regard, have these judges helped in their first year? Absolutely. Have they had an impact? Absolutely. Is everything sort of all better? And I’m oversimplifying things a little, [but] no. It couldn’t be. This really addresses the impacts of the caseload, but caseload is fluid, right? The pattern of filings changes over time. Colorado is an extraordinarily popular state for in-migration; we continue to grow. It’s not unreasonable to expect our caseloads to continue to grow.

Can you tell me anything about you determine, what does fully staffed mean? Are there any kind of standards or anything you look at to figure out in a perfect world, what would be a maximum caseload that a judge would have at any given time?

So we don’t look at it necessarily from a perspective of every judge should have X number of cases. And part of that is the diversity of our judicial districts across the state, 22 judicial districts that range in size dramatically. 

What our workload modeling allows us to do is, given a specific mix of cases, we can estimate. [If] you’re in the 1st Judicial District, which is Jefferson and Gilpin County and you’re the chief judge there, I can say to you, based on your case filings last year, we estimate that you’re going to need X number of judicial officers, which is district judges and magistrates, and Y number of staff and Z number of probation officers. 

And then local management of those resources is a really important component of our system in Colorado. Those local managers who are on the ground, I like to think that our office helps procure a toolbox for them that’s based on their resource needs, and then they’re in the best position to understand how to deploy that toolbox locally. I think it’d be problematic for our office to dictate, you know, everybody has to have 100 felony criminal, 100 domestic relations cases, etc. The nature of the filings just fights against that.

LAW WEEK: I think that’s a good segue into asking about the 23rd Judicial District if it is created. I know the judicial department isn’t taking a position on the bill per se, but I’m just curious to know more about what it is that the judicial department’s role is going to be in facilitating the transition to these two separate districts if they are created.

So right out of the gate, our role is to do the fiscal analysis process that the General Assembly engages in [and] to let the General Assembly know, this is what it’s going to cost to stand up a new district. There’s some set costs around an administrative structure. We need a court executive to be kind of a technical officer on the court side, and we need a chief probation officer on that side. It doesn’t matter how big or small your district is, there are some components that need to exist regardless of size. 

There will probably be some transfer of resources to split the two districts apart. So it’s not all brand new resources, but there will be some new costs. We’ve been communicating with the General Assembly on what we believe those are. There’s also some state judicial infrastructure costs around, particularly, information technology. Our data management systems are set up around 22 districts, and it’s certainly not impossible to make a setup around 23. But there is work involved with that. So there’s some IT development time to update those issues. 

The General Assembly is looking at least preliminarily at pushing the effective date for this several years out; about five years out. And so in that interim our role is going to be, are we meeting our marks on this journey between here and starting up a new district? It’s not a light switch. It’s going to be some ramp up over the course of those years. Do we have the resources we need? 

And do we need to ask the General Assembly potentially to consider additional statutory changes to help facilitate what they want to do? The policy decision on creation of the district is entirely up to them, which is why we don’t take a position on it. We just want to make sure that it happens in a way that is adequately resourced and structurally meets the needs of the citizens.

LAW WEEK: Moving on, something else that I’ve heard talked about particularly within the last year is a pilot program launch for e-filing for pro se litigants in particular types of civil cases. 

Domestic relations cases.

LAW WEEK: If I remember right, that launched a little less than a year ago. Have you have you gotten a sense at this point how many people are using that?

We are not statewide yet on pro se e-filing. We’re doing a phased rollout. You know, it is more complicated and we were excited about doing it.

Note: After the interview, a judicial branch spokesperson confirmed to Law Week the program is currently available in Arapahoe, Douglas, Larimer, Routt, Moffat, Grand, El Paso and Teller Counties. When he sent the email Feb. 10, 2,439 people had registered to use the system and about 300 new cases had been filed. The spokesperson said the payment system is currently being evaluated and so there’s not currently a timeline for expanding the program into other counties.

Where we’ve gone live, the staff loves it, and that’s really important. Physically we may be a large-ish state, but our judicial community, our staff around the state, it’s a small community. People talk. And so when something rolls out and rolls out well, folks know. When something goes out and it’s a struggle, folks know. And this has gone really well so far. The clerks of court in those jurisdictions are speaking highly to their peers about it. It’s nice to be able to bring our services to where our customers are at, listen to where our citizens of that are at, rather than always having have them come to us. 

And the goal would be to get statewide in domestic relations, but then expand the types of cases that self-represented litigants can file in as well.

We haven’t identified the next case area. We started with a with a big lift. The considerations are always, do you start in a less complicated type of case, or do you start with something that has a bigger bang for buck? And we went with the latter. About three quarters of our litigants in domestic relations cases statewide do not have an attorney. And so this is a big impact area to do e-filing, which is great. It also means a little slower rollout, a little more complication, but ultimately a bigger payoff too. 

So we’re going to be in domestic relations getting that statewide for a little while yet. We haven’t identified where we’re going to go next. But we definitely want to expand beyond domestic relations.

LAW WEEK: Obviously, every case is different. But is there any kind of predictability in the type of documents that those cases require. I’m just thinking from the litigation side, if they’re self-represented, does there tend to be any kind of predictability or limit on the documents they need to file for those cases?

There is an aspect of that. But there is a core set of documents that are more or less required in every case. We provide a certain amount of online instruction; we provide a lot of procedural support in person, if litigants would like. We have positions called self-represented litigant coordinators. 

There are limitations, of course, on providing legal advice or any kind of strategic advice specific to your case – you should do X, Y  and Z. But there’s so much room to provide assistance to litigants before you even get anywhere near that. The average person understandably doesn’t come to us with a deep and intimate knowledge of how to file a court case. We provide that assistance [on], this is what the general flow of the case looks like.

LAW WEEK: I thought I would open it up for you if you want to talk about any other kind of priorities or visions that the judicial branch has over the next several years. To to start out, do you want to talk a little bit about who’s involved in setting the direction and priorities? Do you and the chief justice go around the state and find out what’s going on in the different jurisdictions in the state, find out what they need and kind of figure things out ground-up that way?

I was just in the 10th Judicial District earlier this week doing just that: Doing outreach, listening, meeting with the chief judge, meeting with the chief probation officer, meeting with the court executive. You know, what’s going really well in the 10th? What are your opportunities? What are your struggles? What are you thinking about in the near term, which is somewhat of a resource-focused conversation. 

I need to get my sea legs under me a little more before I work with Supreme Court on strategic planning. But that’s on the horizon as well. We do budget planning every year. Strategic planning is more infrequent. And it’s time for us to do that.

Our office exists as a service agency. We exist solely to support the success of the trial courts, appellate courts and probation in Colorado. So that’s the lens through which I view this work.

If we’re not grounded in that, we can make mistakes. We can pursue initiatives or resources that we think are going to help them out but have no grounding in their needs. So the relationship component in the work we do, between our office and the courts and probation around the state, are really fundamental to our success.

LAW WEEK: What kind of needs have you been hearing about from these jurisdictions that you’ve been talking with recently?

A lot of it is caseload-growth related, frankly. It’s having an adequate number of probation officers; having an adequate number of judges and magistrates and adequate number of court staff. Colorado’s a popular place, which is great. That kind of growth puts pressures on our institutions. And I think we’re also at an interesting juncture in our history. 

Some of it is additional human capital resources. Some of it is, how do we use technology differently moving forward to help meet some of our needs? One of the really exciting things about pro se e-filing is, and it sounds like  maybe to some a mundane thing, you don’t have to come downtown to the courthouse. 

If you’re a resident of the City and County of Denver and you want to file a divorce case, it’s kind of a hassle. You’re street parking, you’re feeding the meter, or you’re paying a really expensive lot, if you can find a lot in this town that doesn’t have multi-story building on it. If you’re an hourly employee in your profession, you’re losing money having to come down here to conduct your business. 

So looking for these opportunities to enhance access to justice are what courts are asking us about. Yes, we need more staff. And there’s a legitimate component of that. But how do we look at different ways to improve access to justice on a number of fronts, including technology, so folks can have the court meet their needs without having to inconvenience their life?

LAW WEEK: From seeing other reporting, but then from my own reporting, it seems like nobody really can point to one silver bullet that is leading to this growth in case filings, whether it’s growth in population or the legislature reclassifying some kinds of offenses, things like that. How does trying to figure out what might be driving that growth in caseloads, or the uncertainty about it, inform what the judicial department looks at as solutions to address the caseloads? 

Note: A few offense reclassifications by the legislature in recent years that affect case filing data have included creating a felony DUI charge and reclassifying drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors.

We do try to stay abreast. The General Assembly reaches out to us when there are changes in the law that are anticipated to to change our workload. The nonpartisan staff at the General Assembly through what’s called the fiscal note process, reaches out to the various state agencies and says, we think this might impact you. Does it? If so, how much and why? 

And so we participate in that process. We review about 250 pieces of legislation annually to comment. Ultimately it is the legislative staff’s call at the final moment on whether they take our argument or not. But it’s a very productive process. 

It’s complicated to know all the drivers; it’s complicated to try to stay ahead of all the drivers.

We might have something completely unrelated to the General Assembly. We may have a new immigrant population moving to Colorado to provide labor in an industry.

Now there are language access needs. If folks are involved in the courts we have an obligation to provide interpretation so that the court business can happen in the language that they’re most comfortable with, so they can understand the proceedings. Something like that is really hard to predict.

You know, we stay in touch with the General Assembly, we look at Department of Local Affairs’ economic data and what’s going on with economic trends. So we are kind of reactive sometimes, but we certainly make our best efforts and not always be in a reactive position.

—Julia Cardi

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