Top Women 2020: Ellie Lockwood

As a partner, and Denver office litigation practice group leader at Snell & Wilmer, Ellie Lockwood litigates cases of all types in federal and state court and doesn’t focus on just one stage in cases. But her work outside her regular practice has made as important a mark as her main work at her firm.

Lockwood’s high-profile work in 2019 involved a long-sought resolution in “jail wait” litigation. She also stands out for her efforts in helping bring up younger lawyers as a mentor at the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program and her firm.

In mentoring, Lockwood supports young lawyers through CAMP, but mentoring also happens constantly on an informal basis when junior lawyers at her firm ask for advice. Lockwood said when she meets with a mentee, their conversations tend to involve the “infamous work-life balance discussions” and how to get active in pro bono work and other community involvement. She said the importance of building relationships is key for young lawyers to understand from the beginning of their careers.

“I know Denver feels like a big city, but it’s really a small legal community,” she said. 

Lockwood not only gives her time to new lawyers, but she also gives time to legal social justice causes, including the Colorado Lawyers Committee’s “Jail wait” litigation team.

“The pro bono cases and different community involvement opportunities that I’ve had have really focused on helping people who don’t otherwise have the resources or the ability to help themselves,” she said. “I think it’s a civic duty for lawyers, because we have something a lot of people don’t have — a law degree. And we can use that to help not just our clients who are big companies or businesses or individuals, but we can also help people who may not have the ability to help themselves.”

The “jail wait” litigation team represented Disability Law Colorado in a federal lawsuit lasting the better part of a decade against the Colorado Department of Human Services over treatment of mentally ill people in the criminal court system. An early settlement in a state lawsuit required competency evaluations within 24 days of charging defendants, but the settlement expired in 2009. Litigation reopened in 2012 and alleged wait times were building up again, causing defendants to languish for unconstitutionally long periods of time waiting for evaluations.

The litigation team also included Caleb Durling of Fox Rothschild and Iris Eytan of Eytan Nielsen.

The reopened lawsuit involved more than one restart when the state breached settlement agreement terms twice and eventually led to a consent decree and the Colorado legislature passing a bill in 2019 establishing standards for people charged with crimes found incompetent to proceed in trial. 

In the breach of the first settlement agreement, according to Disability Law Colorado’s website, the state gave the organization inaccurate data showing the state was complying with the deadlines. The second settlement agreement added an independent consultant to monitor the state’s compliance. Disability Law Colorado reopened the case again in 2018 when it came to light people still waited months for mental health treatment to restore their competency to proceed in trial. 

The parties entered a consent decree in 2019. Among several terms are mental health treatment and clinical assessments in the interim before a defendant is taken to a hospital, new units in the Department of Human Services for data analysis and for clinicians to work with courts and community treatment providers, and fines up to $10 million per year for violation of the consent decree.

Then in 2019, Colorado legislature passed a pair of bills in 2019 related to mental health in the criminal court system. Among other provisions, Senate Bill 19-223 requires the Department of Human Services to offer court-ordered competency restoration treatment within seven days to defendants with the most serious of mental health issues. The legislation also requires the Department of Human Services to develop an electronic tracking system for defendants’ competency status in cases where it has been raised.

Senate Bill 19-222 requires the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to have measurable ways of monitoring efforts to prevent Medicaid recipients from becoming involved with the criminal justice system. 

Disability Law Colorado’s goal is “really to move away from this old system of everybody that needs mental health treatment who has been arrested has to go to the one state hospital that we have to get their competency exam,” Lockwood said, and “having these types of services offered in the communities in which individuals are living.”

While the litigation went on, lawsuits in other states also cropped up over defendants languishing while waiting for mental health treatment. Lockwood said they have also focused on shortening unreasonably long delays to treatment, but that the resolution of Colorado’s lawsuit remains distinctive because of its detailed guardrails to help make sure the state is providing mental health services to defendants within a reasonable period. 

“Just by requiring [the state] to implement timeframes doesn’t really provide any guidance on how to do it … in an effective way that’s meaningful that will last for more than a year or two,” Lockwood said. “And so what we wanted, and the hope, is that this will provide them with a better road map on how to meet the timeframes and other things that they can do to help alleviate some of the backlog.” 

—Julia Cardi

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