The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline published its 2021 annual report summarizing its investigations and outcomes of complaints against state judges. Out of the 200 requests for evaluation the commission received, it investigated 17 which led to three private disciplines, six dismissals with warnings and one private censure from 2020.
The annual report offers a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the body responsible for investigating claims of judicial misconduct.
Like previous years, in 2021 the commission received 200 requests for evaluation of a judge’s conduct of which the vast majority, 183 cases, were dismissed either as a matter that the commission can’t consider (like a judge’s interpretation of the law) or for a lack of supporting evidence. The number of complaints in 2021 was also in line with previous years, with the commission receiving 199 complaints in 2020, 221 complaints in 2019 and 200 in 2018.
Requests for evaluation came from 21 of the state’s 22 judicial districts with two complaints aimed at judges on the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court.
Just over half, 101, of the requests came out of criminal law proceedings with many filed by inmates at county jails or Colorado Department of Corrections facilities. The next most common evaluations came from domestic relations cases, with 43 requests, followed by general civil docket matters at 30, juvenile court cases at eight, traffic or DUI offenses at seven, probate court at six and one water law case.
The CCJD noted that litigants filed most misconduct allegations but they also came from attorneys, court staff, court observers and litigants’ family and friends.
In 2021, the commission met five times to consider the 17 complaints and dismissed five of them for lacking a preponderance of evidence to support the allegations, dismissed another five with concern over the allegations and privately disciplined three judges. A 2020 case that carried over resulted in a public censure of a former Colorado judge. The remaining cases carried over into 2022.
COVID Impacted Courts
Across the nine cases that resulted in private discipline or dismissals with warnings, six were due to significant case delays with the commission noting the impact COVID-19 had on courts.
The commission issued two private reprimands and one private admonishment in 2021 over delays. One judge took over a year-and-a-half to issue a decision on a complex civil case, another took seven months to rule on a motion to dismiss a civil case and the third judge had a five-month delay issuing a termination order in a dependency and neglect proceeding. For two of these cases, the commission noted the judge faced extenuating circumstances in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three of the dismissals with concern also stemmed from delays which ranged from four months to a year in two domestic relations cases and a probate case.
The commission noted from 2020 through 2021, many courts adopted new virtual proceedings, which delayed cases, while struggling to maintain adequate staff and having backlogged dockets.
Conduct in the Court
The remaining three dismissals with concern centered around conduct in the courtroom and not following department procedures. In 2021, the Colorado Supreme Court also publicly censured a former judge in a case that carried over from the previous year.
When sentencing a defendant convicted of three counts of retaliation against a separate judge, a presiding judge allegedly made comments that he couldn’t put the defendant in a boxing ring to be “pound[ed].” The CCJD didn’t think the comment broke judicial rules, but noted that many “could have reasonably misinterpreted the statements as evidence of intemperance.”
The commission also warned a judge against making comments that could seem impartial. In the criminal case which involved five co-defendants charged with burglary, trespass and child abuse represented by the same attorney, the presiding judge allegedly called a proposed plea deal “incredible” and hinted that she’d seal the defendant’s criminal records if they took it. The defense attorney took issue with the comments, reporting the judge “wanted [her clients] to enter a plea for something they didn’t do.” The evidence in the case didn’t arise to a violation, the commission found, but it did warn the judge against making future similar statements.
The final dismissal with concern arose after a judge didn’t follow branch procedures after he was reassigned to a case he was initially removed from. The judge had originally recused himself from a domestic relations case since he’d filed a complaint against one of the attorneys. That attorney later stepped down as counsel, and the district’s chief judge asked the original judge to take over the case once again. According to the commission, the chief judge didn’t provide the proper order or party notices that the case was reassigned. The reassignment order was made after the commission contacted the judges over the complaint and it was dismissed.
The Colorado Supreme Court in March 2021 publicly censured former Arapahoe District Court Judge Natalie Chase for using racial slurs in front of court staff and voicing opinions around race from the bench. Chase later resigned from her position following formal, public discipline.
The Future of Judicial Discipline
Next year, Colorado will have a different body to govern judicial discipline after legislators designated funding to create an independent office to oversee judge malpractice claims.
The CCJD acknowledged the upcoming changes which have mostly been focused on removing potential conflicts of interest from the judicial branch and the Colorado Supreme Court over the discipline process. The Colorado legislature is currently making recommendations for additional reforms to the state’s judicial discipline process.
The commission noted its current procedures create significant gaps when it comes to reviewing the conduct of retired judges. A statute of limitations bars the commission from considering conduct after a year from when a judge retires. In 2021 a request for evaluation was made against former Adams County District Judge Thomas Ensor who verbally berated defense counsel resulting in the Colorado Court of Appeals overturning the court’s ruling. Ensor stepped down and was contracted out as part of Colorado’s senior judge program, but due to time limitations, the commission was unable to look into his conduct as a former district court judge. Ensor was later fired for unrelated reasons.