Colorado Amendment D: Voters consider constitutional tweak to shift judges

Colorado voters this fall will decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to allow seven district court judges to move from one Front Range judicial district to a new neighboring jurisdiction in 2025.

The narrow amendment would create a one-time exception to the constitutional process of selecting judges to allow seven judges in the 18th Judicial District, which now includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, to move into a new district in 2025 when the 18th Judicial District is split into two.

The newly-created 23rd Judicial District will include only Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.

Proponents say the constitutional amendment will allow for a seamless transition of the court system in the newly-created judicial district. But one critic says the amendment unnecessarily allows a handful of judges to circumvent the normal nominating process established in the state’s constitution for filling new judgeships.

Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, who is one of four prime sponsors of the referendum, said the amendment is not just about a handful of judges’ jobs.

“None of us who are sponsors of this measure take lightly what it means to amend our state constitution,” he said. “But this is in furtherance of a smooth transition for over a million people who live in some of Colorado’s most populous counties. This is not just about a certain number of judges, this is about continuity of our legal process.”

For almost 60 years, Colorado’s state courts have been divided into 22 judicial districts. Each district has its own elected district attorney, courthouses and judges. The current four-county 18th Judicial District is by far the most populous in the state, with more than 1 million people under its jurisdiction. In 2020, state lawmakers voted to break the district into two and create a new 23rd Judicial District, which will become active in 2025.

Two new district attorneys will be elected in November 2024, one for the 18th Judicial District and one for the 23rd Judicial District. Lawmakers and judicial officials also hope to shift over seven current 18th Judicial District judges who live within the 23rd Judicial District or can move there by the time the district becomes operational.

The Colorado Constitution says vacant judgeships must be filled through a process in which a local district nominating committee recommends candidates to the governor, who then appoints people as judges. Judges stand for retention in subsequent elections.

The constitution does not lay out a separate procedure for the creation of a new judicial district. To be sure that the judges who were appointed in the 18th Judicial District can work legitimately in the 23rd Judicial District, a constitutional amendment is needed, proponents say.

“So really this is kind of a rare ballot measure here where it serves the best interest of the community and there is no real trade-off, no downside if this passes,” said Terry Scanlon, legislative liaison for the state judicial department. “In order to ensure we have smooth transition, this just creates a legal mechanism to have the current judges continue serving the communities they serve now when the boundaries and the names of the judicial districts change.”

Lawmakers cannot end judges’ terms early or reduce their pay, he said, so if the amendment fails to pass, it might create a situation in which the 18th Judicial District has too many judges and the new 23rd Judicial District doesn’t have enough, or new judges must be appointed in the 23rd Judicial District on top of the judges already serving in the 18th Judicial District, upping costs, he said.

There might also be potential for legal challenges to the judges’ authority if they were to move from the 18th Judicial District to the 23rd Judicial District without an amendment, Scanlon said.

Chris Forsyth, executive director of the Judicial Integrity Project, said the amendment is a short-sighted “special interest” amendment aimed at preserving the jobs of a few judges. Judges in the new district should be appointed through the process laid out in the state’s constitution, he argued, and residents in the new 23rd Judicial District should be able to participate in the selection of judges under the same process through which judges are chosen in every other judicial district.

“These are technical requirements in our constitution that we shouldn’t let slip away,” Forsyth said. “We need to be vigilant that the constitution is followed. …Why are we amending the constitution for a one-time change of judges? If there is really a problem in the constitution, then we should change it for the future so that if there is a problem like this again there is a procedure to be followed.”

It’s rare for new judicial districts to be created in Colorado but it has happened several times over the last century. The state had 14 judicial districts in 1921, a number that was upped in 1945, 1953, 1958 and again in 1963 to reach the current 22 judicial districts.

State Court Administrator Steven Vasconcellos gave public testimony in April urging lawmakers to send the issue to voters for the sake of efficiency.

“I want someone who is attending court on the Friday before the 23rd Judicial District is created to have the same services as someone who shows up to Douglas County the Monday after the 23rd is created,” he said then. “And not have to care or know what judicial district they are in.”

The referendum needs to win 55% of the vote to pass.

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