Since 1979, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Colorado Judicial Institute has worked to provide more knowledge about the judicial system.
It was originally formed to promote and defend Colorado’s system of merit selection and retention for judges, but now also focuses on developing public trust mainly in the state court system.
“In a time in which misinformation has become perhaps too easy to disseminate, CJI is an invaluable resource for reliable information, especially when judges, due to ethical or other constraints, cannot speak for themselves,” wrote Colorado Supreme Court Justice Richard Gabriel to Law Week Colorado.
One of CJI’s major programs, in collaboration with the Colorado Bar Association, is called Our Courts which teaches civics to adult and high school audiences. The Annenberg Public Policy Center reported recently only 47% of adults could name the three branches of government.
One of the founders of Our Courts and former Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Russell Carparelli wrote to Law Week about the importance of the program: “to preserve our freedom, we must preserve the rule of law. To do this, Americans understand the critical importance of the rule of law, and there must be a broad commitment to preserving the Constitution in its entirety.”
Gabriel, who is another leader of Our Courts and is also an emeritus director for the CJI, wrote that this program is very important given the decline in civics education in classrooms. Gabriel continued stating few voters are aware the merit selection system for judges relies on nonpartisan nominating commissions that consist mainly of nonlawyers and nonlawyers also play a major part in evaluating judges.
“Our Courts helps to remedy these information voids, so that people know how they can participate in the judicial selection and review processes and how to find information so that they can vote intelligently on whether judges should be retained,” Gabriel wrote.
Carparelli, who is also an emeritus director at CJI, echoed Gabriel adding, “In this way, the Our Courts program enables Colorado residents to be confident that our courts are fair and impartial. With the information Our Courts provides, resident[s] can better evaluate proposals and policies that affect our state courts.”
Carparelli also surmised school civics programs are important for an overview of American courts, but adults need to get information relevant to their life, which they can get through the Our Courts program.
“There are only a few ways they can get it,” Carparelli wrote. “For example, they can get it by participating in court proceedings as a plaintiff, a defendant, a witness, or a juror. But that only gives them information relevant to the case they are involved in and their own role in that case. They can get it from the news and opinions and editorials. But, that information is also limited and is often biased.”
CJI Executive Director Jeff Rupp said he has a goal of CJI being less Denver-centric and focused on all the judiciary throughout the state. Gabriel has the same hopes for the Our Courts program.
“We are always looking for ways to reach beyond the big metropolitan areas and to get into parts of this state that do not have ready access to the kind of nonpartisan information that we provide,” Gabriel wrote. “The Our Courts High School program has already provided a wonderful means by which we can reach these communities, and we hope to expand that.”
Carparelli added Our Courts has been shared with other programs throughout the country as a model and won multiple awards including from the American Bar Association and the American Inns of Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Award.
More than 600 presentations have been given and more than 20,000 people have been reached by the Our Courts program.
Other CJI Programming
CJI also has other programs wrapped under the banner of knowledge including helping fund programs that continue education for judges.
“Judges like any professional need to engage in continuous learning … particularly when they’re new on the job,” Rupp said. “Imagine when an attorney puts his or her hat into the ring to be appointed as a judge, they may have been in the courtroom as an attorney on the plaintiff or the defendant’s side and they’ve seen the judge in action, but they haven’t actually served as a judge themselves, so there’s a learning curve.”
CJI also works with a coalition of other groups supporting a program called Diversity on the Bench which has a goal of the bench reflecting the diversity of the state.
“There’s been a lot of progress on that over the past several years, but still a ways to go,” Rupp continued. According to the Colorado Judicial Branch as of August 2021, 84% of judges are white in the state.
The CJI also has a program to recognize judges and is celebrated at a gala dinner in the fall. This year’s event will be held Nov. 1.
A lot of the funds for the CJI come from fundraising efforts as they work to build year-round fundraising.