The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline fielded a higher-than-average number of complaints from the public in 2018 and held formal proceedings against a judge involved in a high-profile scandal.
But despite the big year, one thing remained consistent: The vast majority of complaints didn’t address judges’ ethical conduct, which the commission is tasked with overseeing.
According to its annual report released in June, the commission received 200 complaints in 2018, higher than the average of 180 in recent years and up from 154 received in 2017 and 152 in 2016. They included complaints against judges in each of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts as well as two complaints against judges of the Court of Appeals.
Most of the complaints were filed by litigants, but allegations of judicial misconduct were also filed by attorneys, relatives, friends, court staff and court observers, according to the report. About 60% of the complaints were related to criminal cases, several of which were filed by inmates serving time in the state’s prisons or county jails.
The commission took disciplinary actions against six judges, two of which resulted in formal proceedings, including the public censure of Court of Appeals Judge Laurie Booras for sharing confidential information about a case and making inappropriate racial remarks in emails to a former lover. Booras resigned in January after the commission recommended to the Colorado Supreme Court that she be removed from office.
The commission is made up of 10 unpaid citizens, lawyers and judges and overseen by executive director William Campbell, who is on the front lines of sorting through the complaints.
Campbell dismissed 183 of last year’s 200 complaints because they didn’t provide a reasonable basis for disciplinary proceedings. Campbell said most of the dismissed complaints were filed by people who were upset about the outcome of a trial or other legal proceeding, rather than matters related to judicial conduct. Seven of the complaints dismissed in 2018 were directed at law enforcement, attorneys and officials other than judges, the report said.
According to Campbell, it’s typical for only about 20% of complaints to be forwarded on to the commission for further evaluation and investigation, and he said his counterparts in other states report receiving similar numbers of complaints unrelated to judicial ethics.
The dismissed complaints are reviewed by the commission at its bimonthly meetings. Filers of dismissed complaints receive a detailed explanation about why the decision was made, a practice implemented after Campbell became executive director in 2009 and that he said has helped allay criticism or speculation that the allegations weren’t taken seriously.
“In states that don’t do that, the bloggers go crazy,” Campbell said. “If we write a letter that explains why we did what we did, it’s much more likely that they will accept our decision.”
However, the commission hasn’t made broad efforts to educate the public or address the high volume of misdirected complaints, according to Campbell.
“It would be, I think, a public relations problem for us to undertake a public crusade,” he said, adding that it “might give the appearance that we’re making excuses or don’t really look at things.”
Campbell said he has seen an uptick in complaints about parenting plans and other divorce-related matters during his 10 years as executive director. According to the 2018 report, 39 complaints involved domestic relations cases, primarily in parenting plan disputes.
“The irony of that is that the legislature, over the years, has adopted a lot of guidelines in domestic cases that didn’t used to be there,” he said.
“And you’d think that those guidelines and statutes would help resolve problems, but it may in fact have created problems, because now people find more things they can argue about.”
Another trend Campbell has noticed is an increase in allegations related to competency evaluations and mental health, which accounted for 13 of the complaints in 2018, according to the report. He said these typically involve criminal cases in which a trial has been delayed because a judge has ordered an evaluation of a defendant.
“It’s becoming more and more common that a defendant in a criminal case will complain that he or she has been judged incompetent unfairly, and yet what the court is trying to do is protect that person so that they receive a fair trial,” Campbell said.
The commission was established in 1967, when Colorado adopted merit selection of judges. Most of its disciplinary actions take the form of private letters sent to judges who have violated the canons of judicial conduct. The least serious offenses result in a letter of admonishment, while bigger violations may lead to a private reprimand or censure.
If a case is so serious it cannot be handled privately, formal proceedings will be held, and the trial is overseen by three judges appointed by the Supreme Court, who may recommend a judge be removed or issued a public censure.
The state constitution requires the commission’s records to be kept confidential unless formal proceedings are held and public sanctions are recommended. This creates a conundrum for the commission, which must balance its confidentiality requirement with a desire for transparency.
Campbell said this was a key concern for former Chief Justice Michael Bender, who appointed him executive director of the commission a decade ago.
“He wanted to interview me, and the issue he had front and center in his mind was: How do we take a confidential process and make it more transparent?” Campbell said. “And that’s what we’ve tried to do by writing these letters to explain in detail what we’ve done.”
The commission’s rules have also changed in recent years to allow for more transparency. One change allowed for cases resulting in private discipline to be summarized in the annual reports with names, dates and places omitted. Another change allowed the commission to make a brief statement when a disciplinary investigation results in a judge’s suspension. The confidentiality requirement isn’t just there to protect the judges, but also to shield the identities of those who file complaints, Campbell said.
“Folks don’t want to complain if they’re going to be in the spotlight. A few do, but for the most part they’re reluctant to complain if they think it’s going to make a headline in the newspaper or cause the judge to retaliate,” he said. “So there are good reasons why the process should be confidential.”
“We don’t seek the spotlight because we want to maintain the confidentiality,” Campbell added. “At the same time, we want people to understand what we’re doing, so there are some difficult choices sometimes.”
— Jessica Folker