Opinion: Colorado must investigate judicial misdeeds, but let’s not change the structure

Opinion: Colorado must investigate judicial misdeeds, but let’s not change the structure

Recent stories in The Denver Post and other media outlets have alleged instances of impropriety by individual state court judges in Colorado. These reports are serious, and they may negatively affect the public’s confidence in our courts. Additionally, some have now called for immediate legislative or Constitutional change to Colorado’s judicial merit selection and retention system, a move that we at the Colorado Judicial Institute (CJI) feel would be a serious mistake.

CJI is a non-partisan non-profit that has for decades supported Colorado’s judicial merit selection and retention system. We at CJI are committed to open government, safe workplaces, diversity, accountability, and a robust deliberative process. Safe workplaces require opportunities for personnel to voice complaints, and a culture of openness, fair and equitable treatment, and accountability from the top down. CJI supports efforts that honor these values — including the full, fair, and thorough investigation of alleged judicial misconduct.

What also concerns us, however, are the recent calls for rapid, sweeping changes to the way our judges are selected and retained.

In 2016, Colorado celebrated 50 years of choosing and retaining the state’s judges through a merit selection system rather than through partisan judicial elections. We are one of more than 30 states that have opted not to elect judges to the bench. Such a system tends to favor those who have the financial means (but not always the expertise) to run for the judiciary and who may
be backed by special interests that hope to gain something through their “investment.”

Colorado’s system instead relies on bipartisan judicial nominating commissions, comprised of volunteer non-attorneys and attorneys. The commissions recommend qualified candidates to the governor, who makes judicial appointments from the nominees. Judges stand for retention in general elections after voters receive extensive information from local and statewide bipartisan judicial performance evaluation commissions. The commissions review information about judges’ performance from multiple sources and make recommendations to registered voters regarding retention of judges.

Colorado’s judicial merit selection and retention system is the right thing for our citizens and businesses for these important reasons:

  •  Litigants need not worry whether their attorneys have donated enough money to the judicial reelection campaigns of judges presiding over their cases.
  • The system encourages exceptional applicants to apply for state court judge positions and produces a high-quality state court judiciary.
  • Judges can fairly and impartially decide cases based on the facts and law without influences of partisan politics.

Colorado citizens are entitled to expect that the current judiciary investigation will be thorough and fair, appropriate action will follow based on its results and, regardless of the outcome, our judges will always serve Colorado honorably and with integrity and will decide cases fairly and impartially. At the same time, consistent with due process and other law, we should allow the
investigatory process time to follow the facts wherever they may lead. Only then may there be good, fully-informed decisions about the allegations, the individuals involved, and our judicial system.

Remember that Colorado’s judicial merit selection and retention system is fair, widely admired, a model for other states, and it has stood the test of time. Let’s not consider tampering with it before the facts are in.

Peter G. Koclanes is chairman of the board of the Colorado Judicial Institute. Founded in 1979, CJI’s mission is to preserve and enhance the fairness, impartiality, and excellence of Colorado’s courts, to further public understanding of the Colorado judicial system, and to ensure that the courts meet the needs of the people. 

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Published at Mon, 05 Apr 2021 03:25:00 +0000

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