A bill to create Colorado’s 23rd judicial district passed out of the House and is now working its way through the Senate. Last Wednesday the Senate’s Judiciary Committee approved it unamended, and it will make a stop in the Appropriations Committee before moving to the full chamber.
House Bill 1026 will create a new judicial district in 2025 by splitting the current 18th District in two: It carves out Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln Counties as the 23rd District, and Arapahoe County would stand alone as the 18th District. Supporters of the split have said it’s meant to address population growth in the current 18th District that has pushed its total population well over 1 million people.
The bill made it to the Senate mostly unchanged. The House moved the district split’s effective date to January 7, 2025 to line up with the new district attorney’s swearing-in date. In addition to yearly SMART Act hearings about the transition, the bill also has a requirement for the judicial department to prepare a final report for 2026 about the transition process detailing “what aspects went relatively smoothly,” what “created issues” and recommendations for making any future judicial district redrawing go smoothy.
Rep. Mike Weissman, a prime House sponsor of the bill, said the report doesn’t intend to dictate how to redraw judicial districts in the future because he’s focused on the task at hand of the 18th District’s split, but knows there’s value in providing guidance to future legislatures should the need come up again.
The bill has not run into much opposition, but that hasn’t stopped jokes about the district split making comparisons to a Colorado version of Brexit and an effort by 11 counties to secede from Colorado made in 2013.
“Such as what Weld County tried to do with the state of Colorado several years ago. Are these counties seceding?” committee chair Sen. Pete Lee joked to Amy Atwood, a contract lobbyist for Douglas County who came to testify in support of the bill.
The current 18th District’s counties, the Colorado District Attorneys Council and DA George Brauchler all support the transition to create a new district. Atwood said the judicial department’s requirement to check in with each county during the split process to understand their needs has been key to getting the support of all four counties.
But what will make the split smooth falls somewhere in between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” The financial, personnel and logistic considerations involved in creating a new district makes the transition akin to a corporate transaction. Also similar to a transaction, the counties hope they can resolve any disagreements without the transition or their relationships going sour.
Mark Bussey, a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs in the firm’s corporate practice who mostly does mergers and acquisitions, said trying to anticipate decisions parties will have to make during a transaction process is key to having a good working relationship. He added that includes understanding which decisions just need a majority of everyone involved to live with and which sensitive issues may need unanimous approval to decide.
“Maybe we require unanimity or particular participants want to ensure they … have a ‘veto’ right or an approval right, if you will,” he said.
Rep. Rod Bockenfeld initially called for House Bill 1026 to include a path for dispute resolution between the counties. He has a background as a special asset lender and as an Arapahoe County commissioner, and he previously told Law Week he would expect the economics of the district split to be the most likely cause of disputes if it ends up costing more than estimated.
The bill’s current fiscal note estimates $2.2 million over three years in one-time transition costs mostly comprising a coordinator and information technology expenses. The note estimates staff and operations costs in the 23rd District will cost about $1.2 million each year, and a new judge position with support staff will cost about $590,000 each year.
Bockenfeld said a risk of good-faith “handshake” agreements is the assumption that the same county commissioners will be in office five years down the road when the district split takes effect.
He explained the counties would want to avoid a dispute ending up in court because of the delay to the district split it would cause and because, in his experience, judges have little patience for disputes in which the counties don’t have some kind of anchoring agreement to look to.
Neither chamber has amended the bill to set out a framework for any dispute resolution. Bockenfeld was absent from the Capitol last week, but Weissman told Law Week he believes Bockenfeld ultimately was all right with the bill as is, given the requirement for yearly SMART Act hearings to monitor the transition process and the ability of the legislature to pass additional bills addressing any kinks in the process if needed. Bockenfeld signed on as a sponsor of House Bill 1026.
The Senate Judiciary Committee poked fun at Sen. Bob Gardner for mentioning that a mosaic in the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center depicting the state’s 22 judicial districts will no longer be accurate when the new district is created.
“Thank you, Sen. Gardner,” said Sen. Robert Rodriguez, “For digging into the deep issues and the concerns that can be brought further down the line in this bill.”