//The Colorado Supreme Court in Denver. Photo from Shuttershock.
Other publications, like Denverite, have created helpful guides for voting on the judges that adhere closer to a liberal democratic political alignment. But since we’re going for a more progressive stance, here’s a different perspective on what voting for judges on your ballot this year means.
Evaluating whether or not to retain a judge is a tricky and often confusing choice for voters. According to Denverite, roughly 30% of voters in 2016 did not answer any questions regarding judges. That number makes a lot of sense, seeing as the information available on judges up for retention is limited at best in Colorado.
First of all, judges in Colorado are appointed by elected officials. After they’re appointed they serve a provisional term, which can vary in length. Following the provisional term, a judge faces a retention vote, which is what you see on your ballot.
Every judicial district has a commission composed of 10 individuals—six non-attorneys and four attorneys, who evaluate district and county judges. The state commission has 11 individuals—six non-attorneys and five attorneys—performing the evaluations. The commissioner positions are all volunteer-based.
Rather than allow records of the judges’ performances to be viewed by the public, the commissions read overall judicial, financial and criminal records, as well as surveys submitted by other judges, attorneys, jurors and civilians. The commission then gives an official evaluation of the judge’s performance. Every judge on the 2020 ballot in Denver County “meets performance standards.” According to Denverite, each judge who is seeking a retention vote has received two assessments since their last retention (or initial hire, if they’re new): one midway through their term and one right before they had to decide if they would seek retention from voters.
However, from a progressive standpoint, the lack of transparency on the judges’ records is a cause of concern. One organization, the Judicial Integrity Project, has been fighting to make these records more available to the public.
Unlike most states, the disciplinary proceedings set in place for judges are confidential in Colorado. This means that if a judge has any form of discipline on their record, or are in the midst of disciplinary proceedings, voters would not be able to find out.
“Voters do not get access to information about judges that can help them accurately inform their vote,” said Chris Forsyth, Executive Director of The Judicial Integrity Project. “Crucial information, such as criminal records and public complaints, are filtered through these commissions.”
Criminal histories of judges are not available to the public, and according to Forsyth, financial disclosures are limited and are not vetted for accuracy. What happens to civilian complaints is not wholly transparent either. According to the Colorado Judicial Performance website, surveys completed by civilians “are returned to the independent research company conducting the survey.
That company compiles the results of all the completed questionnaires it receives into a composite report to be supplied to the commissions on judicial performance and judges.” Forsyth, who is an attorney, says this statement is perhaps a bit too vague.
Most importantly, the state commission destroys all records of previous evaluations except for a single report summarizing prior performance evaluations. According to the Judicial Integrity Project, “the lack of historical data about any particular judge results in the inability of any performance commission to notice a pattern of conduct or repeated disturbing behavior by a judge that should result in an unfavorable recommendation.” To Forsyth, the obfuscation of these detailed records is “not consistent with judicial integrity.”
Rather than encourage any particular way of voting, Forsyth urges concerned citizens to sign the project’s petition to address the lack of visibility regarding Colorado judges.
Denverite has created a helpful guide for voting on the judges that adheres closer to a liberal democratic political alignment than a progressive one. Our recommendation? Sign the petition, and vote whichever way you feel is best for Colorado constituents.