Complaints about Colorado judges jump 25% amid reform effort

The organization responsible for disciplining Colorado judges for professional misconduct saw a 25% increase in the number of complaints it received in 2022 compared to 2021, according to a newly published annual report.

The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline authorized formal disciplinary proceedings against judges in five cases in the last 18 months, which the agency says is more such proceedings than in the last 12 years combined — showing an uptick in serious, credible complaints against the state’s judges.

The surge came as the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline underwent an unprecedented reform effort that wrapped up in the legislature this week and is now headed to Colorado voters, who will in 2024 decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to make the discipline process more transparent.

The Commission on Judicial Discipline received 249 requests for evaluation — complaints — about judges’ behavior in 2022, up from 200 received in 2021 and 199 in 2020, according to the annual report. Nearly all of those complaints — 94% — were dismissed without investigation because the complaints did not fall under the commission’s jurisdiction, were frivolous or did not allege actual misconduct.

That’s consistent with past years. The commission is not able to consider complaints about judges’ legal rulings and only considers allegations about violations of the professional code of conduct, like allegations of rude or racist behavior, sexual harassment or unduly slow rulings.

Chris Forsyth, executive director of the Judicial Integrity Project, which has long advocated for reforms to the discipline system, said Thursday that the high dismissal rate shows the system still isn’t working.

“The same old, same old,” he said. “…I can tell you that a lot of people, attorneys, have given up on filing discipline complaints because they knew nothing would be done. It’s a waste of time and it would just make the judge mad. And that really hasn’t changed; they’re still dismissing most of the complaints.”

Just 14 complaints made it past the initial screen-out in 2022, according to the annual report. After additional investigation, the commission dismissed 11 because there wasn’t strong enough evidence of wrongdoing. In the remaining three cases, two were dropped with the commission issuing “expression(s) of concern” to the judges, and in one case a judge was privately disciplined. In an additional case that started in 2021 and carried over into 2022, a single judge was publicly disciplined.

The judges who were privately disciplined or issued expressions of concern were not named in the annual report.

The judge who was privately disciplined was reprimanded for failing to rule on a straightforward motion for a year and four months, according to the report. The judge, who had been previously privately reprimanded by the commission for a similar delay, retired while the disciplinary case was ongoing, according to the report.

The two “expression of concern” dismissals involved one judge who hadn’t promptly registered to vote in the county where the judge lived, as well as a judge who unintentionally carried out a meandering personal conversation while the courtroom’s recording equipment was still active and taking down every word for the formal court record.

The commission oversees discipline investigations for about 330 judges across the state. In 2022, the commission received complaints about judges in every judicial district in the state, with the most complaints about judges in the 18th and Fourth judicial districts, which cover Arapahoe, Douglas, El Paso, Teller, Elbert and Lincoln counties. About 40% of all complaints received by the commission came from those large jurisdictions, according to the report.

The commission’s executive director, Chris Gregory, declined to comment on the report. In legislative hearings, commission members have suggested the spike in complaints is tied to more public awareness about the commission and its function, rather than a sudden increase in judicial misconduct.

Forsyth suggested the commission is receiving similar allegations to those received in the past, but has started to take more public disciplinary action on those complaints as a result of the reform effort and public outcry.

“They’re trying to claim they are doing more now and getting more serious cases now, so public pressure appears to be working,” Forsyth said. “But I don’t really buy they’re getting more serious cases now; they’re just being a little bit more active since they’re in the public eye.”

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