Supreme Court Hears First Arguments of 2020

The court tackled questions about the right to a public trial and challenges to an Estes Park mountain coaster

Colorado Supreme Court
The Colorado Supreme Court is moving forward with developing a lawyer well-being program for legal employers by creating a committee to look at implementing the program across Colorado. The program was developed through a pilot program using multiple firms of all sizes, public and private, to explore how to implement well-being initiatives in firms. / Law Week file.

The Colorado Supreme Court heard its first oral arguments of 2020 last week. They included a couple of criminal cases that took up Sixth Amendment questions as well as a pair of zoning disputes over a proposed mountain coaster development in Larimer County.

On Jan. 14, the court heard arguments in two cases dealing with questions about what constitutes a public trial: People v. Lujan and People v. Jones.

In People v. Lujan, the court will consider whether a brief courtroom closure to re-read a previously given jury instruction violated the defendant’s right to a public trial. Also at issue in the case is whether a remand is an appropriate remedy when a trial court fails to make findings consistent with Waller v. Georgia.

Lujan was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend in 2015, but the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction in 2018 after it concluded a closure to read jury instructions during his trial had violated his right to a public trial. 

On Tuesday, attorneys for the state argued that the brief closure during Lujan’s trial didn’t violate the Sixth Amendment because the closure was trivial and didn’t deprive the defendant of any of the guarantees of the right to a public trial, such as ensuring a fair trial, encouraging witnesses to come forward and discouraging perjury. Lujan’s attorney responded that the closure was not “trivial” and argued that the Court of Appeals was correct to reverse the case for a new trial, rather than remand as the People had requested.

The second case, People v. Jones, raises the question of whether exclusion of the defendant’s parents for cause constituted a “closure” under the Sixth Amendment if the courtroom remained open to the general public for the entire trial. The court will also consider whether the Court of Appeals erred by interpreting the child abuse statute to preclude a child abuse conviction where the child suffered injuries in the womb but was born alive. In light of another division’s holding in People v. Lage and inconsistent with amendments to the state’s child abuse statute since 2009.

Jones was found guilty of first-degree murder of his pregnant wife in 2014. The baby was delivered by emergency Caesarean section but suffered severe neurological injury, and Jones was also convicted of child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury. However, the Court of Appeals reversed his first-degree murder conviction after concluding the trial court violated Jones’ right to a public trial by excluding his mother and stepfather during his children’s testimony. The Court of Appeals also vacated his child abuse conviction, concluding that a child injured in utero, but born alive and seriously injured, is not a person under the child abuse statute.

The People argued that excluding particular spectators for cause is not a closure but, rather, falls within the court’s authority to maintain order in the courtroom. On the child abuse question, the People argued the child’s live birth made her a “person” under the plain language of the state child abuse statute, as well as amendments to the statute since the Court of Appeals ruled on the subject in People v. Lage in 2009.

Counsel for Jones argued the public trial issue should be dismissed, saying the record doesn’t support the state’s claims that the family members were excluded for cause. If the court does reach the issue, it should affirm the Court of Appeals’ finding that the lower court closed the courtroom to the defendant’s parents without satisfying Waller v. Georgia and People v. Hassen. As for the child abuse charge, Jones’ attorney argued the statute’s plain language establishes a fetus is not a “person” and that, since Lage, the legislature has repeatedly rejected legislation intended to bring “unborn human beings” within the Criminal Code’s definition of “person.”

The court also heard arguments in McCulley v. People about whether the Court of Appeals erred by concluding the term “conviction,” as used in section 16-22-113(3) (c), C.R.S (2018), of the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA), includes a successfully completed deferred judgment.

The final case for Jan. 14 was People v. Espinoza. The state Supreme Court will consider whether a lower court erred in finding the defendant’s attempted murder crime of violence convictions were based on identical evidence, and therefore not separate crimes of violence.

On Jan. 15, the state’s highest court heard arguments in Destination Maternity and Liberty Mutual Insurance v. Burren. The court will consider whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that an administrative law judge can’t determine an injured worker has reached maximum medical improvement unless an authorized treating physician or an independent medical examiner has made similar findings. The lower court’s decision appears to conflict with the plain language of section 8-42-107(8)(b)(III), C.R.S. (2019), which allows the findings of a division independent medical examiner to be overcome by clear and convincing evidence.

In People v. Figueroa-Lemus, the court will consider if an order denying a motion to withdraw a guilty plea under Crim. P 32(d) on a pending deferred judgment is a final judgment subject to appeal under CO Rev Stat § 13-4-102 (2017). A second issue in the case is whether an attorney is required to advise a client that pleading guilty to a crime will subject them to mandatory detention for the duration of the defendant’s immigration proceedings.

Afternoon arguments on Jan. 15 included two lawsuits brought by a group of six Larimer County residents over a proposed mountain coaster development. 

In the first of the two related lawsuits, filed against the Yakutat Land Corporation and Estes Valley Board of Adjustment, the court will consider five issues. The first is whether the Court of Appeals has jurisdiction under state law if, in the context of a C.R.C.P. 106(a)(4) proceeding, a district court declares a county development code unconstitutional. 

The court will also consider if the residents are precluded from seeking judicial review on whether the commissioner or board of adjustment have jurisdiction over the use classification decision. The last three issues deal with whether the board of adjustment abused its discretion or exceeded its jurisdiction in various zoning and planning decisions. 

The second case, which pits the residents against the Larimer County Board of Commissioners and the Yakutat Land Corporation, raises the question of whether the board of commissioners had jurisdiction to review the appeal of a zoning official. If the board did have jurisdiction, the court will also consider whether the board or the zoning official abused their discretion in determining the zoning code use classification.

— Jessica Folker

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