Lawmakers wants to strip Colorado Supreme Court of sole power to remove judges

A bipartisan committee of state lawmakers wants to strip the Colorado Supreme Court of its sole power to remove judges from the bench — one of several proposed changes aimed at reforming the state’s system for disciplining judges.

In a trio of draft bills and proposals made public Friday, the lawmakers suggest wide-ranging reforms that, if enacted, would reduce the influence of the Colorado Supreme Court over judicial discipline, increase public transparency and make submitting complaints about judges easier.

Currently, the state Supreme Court justices have the sole power to suspend, publicly censure or remove a judge from the bench. That would change under the suggested reforms, which include an amendment to the Colorado constitution.

The lawmakers propose a new system in which public judicial discipline would be dolled out by a three-person panel made up of a judge, an attorney and a citizen.

Under the new system, a complaint about a judge would first be screened by the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, which could dismiss the complaint, issue private, confidential discipline — like a written reprimand — or send the case to the three-person panel for public disciplinary proceedings.

The panel would then have the power to censure, suspend or remove the judge from the bench, and the process at that point would be open to the public — a shift from the almost completely secret system now.

A judge could appeal the panel’s decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, which could uphold or overturn the panel’s decision. If a state Supreme Court justice were to be involved in a disciplinary case, either as a victim, witness or as the subject of discipline, the case would be appealed to a special tribunal of seven Court of Appeals judges, rather than to the state Supreme Court, according to the draft legislation.

Chris Forsyth, executive director of The Judicial Integrity Project, said that while the proposed changes bring some incremental improvement, particularly around transparency and reducing the power of the state Supreme Court, the proposals don’t go far enough.

“It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said.

Historically, the Commission on Judicial Discipline has on its own dismissed the vast majority of complaints it receives about judges and has referred only a small portion for further investigation or discipline. Only a half-dozen judges have been publicly disciplined in Colorado since 2010.

That structure and secrecy would stay in place under the proposed reforms, Forsyth said.

“This would affect 3% or less of the complaints made to the commission,” he said of the three-person panel. “…The current commission on judicial discipline dismisses 97% of complaints…and that’s just going to continue. There is no sunlight proposed on those dismissals; nothing there is going to change.”

But he added the reforms would “greatly improve” the process for disciplining a Colorado Supreme Court justice and would remedy some existing conflicts of interest by shifting decision-making power away from the state’s high court.

In other areas of judicial discipline, the lawmakers also proposed creating an independent ombudsman’s office within the Commission on Judicial Discipline to help guide people who want to lodge a complaint against a judge and to create and maintain a system for court employees to anonymously submit complaints, among other duties.

They suggest requiring the Commission on Judicial Discipline to keep additional data and make that information easily searchable online, and requiring the commission to accept complaints about judges online or through the mail.

The lawmakers left in place a provision that makes it a misdemeanor crime for commission members or others helping with judicial disciplinary proceedings to disclose confidential information.

The drafted proposals are a starting point and will go through the regular legislative process next year once the interim committee finishes its proceedings, Sen. Julie Gonzales said.

“There may be some continued tinkering along the way,” she said.

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