Colorado One Step Closer to Getting More District Judges

Senate Bill 43 moves through committee easily; two others killed

Colorado’s Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously last Wednesday to advance a bill adding 15 more judges to some of the state’s judicial districts. Though after several hours of testimony, the committee indefinitely postponed two other bills related to post-conviction remedy proceedings and liability for providers of educational materials. 

The most recent fiscal note for Senate Bill 43 shows creating the additional district judge positions would require an additional $9.7 million for the judicial department from the general fund for the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year. Each year after, the expenses would cost an extra $8.6 million. The costs account for added supporting staff positions such as court reporters, law clerks and bailiffs. 

The bill breezed through committee with a 15-minute hearing and no testimony in opposition. Sen. Bob Gardner expressed his gratitude to the judicial department for going to different districts around the state to talk with legislators and chief judges to find out what the needs are. He added it’s even possible the 21st District, which includes Mesa County, may ask for one more judge as the bill progresses.

“The need is real,” he told the community. “As case loads grow, particularly felony filings, they take priority for the courts, as they should. At the same time, that means that civil filings get a longer and longer case processing time.” 

Chief Justice Nathan Coats in his State of the Judiciary address noted felony filings in Colorado have jumped statewide by more than 40 percent in the past five years. 

In testimony for the bill, state court administrator Chris Ryan said the judiciary hasn’t been able to pin down exactly why felony cases have ballooned so much in number. The department can be hesitant to request more resources as quickly as demand grows, he said, because judges are approved by the legislature for specific judicial districts and can’t be moved around. So the judiciary tries to make sure it’s making the best use of its resources before asking for more. 

“We are at a point where resources are beyond the ability to handle the caseload that’s there,” Ryan said. He added the increase in the state’s felony cases isn’t a trend that’s mirrored nationally. It also isn’t concentrated in just a few judicial districts. “Is it a trend that’s happening because of people moving here, and the population increases? We don’t know.” 

The Colorado Bar Association’s president-elect, Jessica Brown, also offered support for the bill to ease the judiciary’s docket loads. She has experience on the front lines with how strained dockets have an amplified effect on civil cases. Brown does pro bono work for victims of domestic violence, and recalled a client she represented who brought a gender discrimination claim after she was evicted from her Section 8 housing because of the perception she “brought” the domestic violence she was a victim of into the community. 

The case’s judge couldn’t find time to fit it into his regular hours, so he came to Brown’s office after hours to negotiate a resolution with the parties. Brown said that’s characteristic of the judges’ dedication to their communities. 

“From a litigant’s perspective it’s about access to justice, but this bill is also about helping the judges help your constituents,” she said. 

Committee Kills Two Other Bills 

The Judiciary Committee spent the bulk of Wednesday afternoon hearing two more controversial bills. Sen. John Cooke brought a piece of legislation, Senate Bill 26, to bar a defendant from making a second or any subsequent claims for post-conviction remedy because of ineffective assistance of counsel in a prior post-conviction proceeding. A post-conviction remedy motion happens after a defendant exhausts the appeals process. 

In theory, a defendant could bring endless post-conviction relief claims, one after another, by finding new grounds for each one. Cooke said it prevents the finality of convictions. But ultimately, Cooke and others who supported Senate Bill 26 didn’t convince the rest of the Judiciary Committee that situation actually comes up often enough to need legislation heading it off. Committee chair Sen. Pete Lee, who voted against the bill, also expressed his concerns it could hamper access to justice for defendants who truly have been subject to errors of justice. 

“I’m not persuaded that this bill … the way it allocates justice differentially between the poor and the rich, and differentially between the prosecutors and the defenders, is a fair and appropriate way to do it,” Lee said. 

The committee also indefinitely postponed a bill — Senate Bill 48 — presented by Sen. Chris Holbert that would require businesses that provide educational materials to public schools to filter out content that’s obscene or harmful to children. It also would have created a right of civil action for children’s guardians against businesses if the children see material that should have been filtered out. 

People who testified about the bill frequently referenced the company EBSCO, and supporters said a host of “bad” material such as pornography had been found in EBSCO’s materials aimed at primary- and secondary-school students. But some against the bill, and committee vice-chair Sen. Julie Gonzales, expressed concerns the bill’s definitions of problematic material were too broad. For example, they flagged certain types of content as sexual that was not actually sexual in nature, such as homosexuality. 

“I do have deep concerns around the definitions that continue to be a part of this bill,” Gonzales said. “I do think we should be asking our students to think critically about the internet world that they navigate on a daily basis.” 

— Julia Cardi

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