Vail Law: Here’s how judges are selected for Colorado’s state courts (column)
September 18, 2018
There are 22 judicial districts in Colorado. Eagle County is in the 5th Judicial District, which encompasses Lake, Clear Creek, Summit and Eagle counties. The 5th district has courthouses in each county. In Clear Creek County, the court is situated in Georgetown. In Lake County, you can find the court in Leadville. Summit's court is just a stone's throw from the ski hill in Breckenridge and Eagle County's court sits hard beside Interstate 70 in Eagle.
The county courts are known as "combined courts" in that they house both the county courts and district courts.
County courts handle civil cases under $15,000, misdemeanor criminal matters, traffic infractions, felony complaints (which may be sent to district court), protection orders and small claims. District courts hear civil cases in any amount, as well as domestic relations matters, criminal, juvenile, probate and mental health cases. Appeals from county court decisions are to the district court. Appeals from the district court are to the Colorado Court of Appeals.
A "judicial district" simply denotes the territorial area for which a particular court has jurisdiction. Jurisdiction may, in turn, be thought of as the authority granted to a legal body to administer justice within a defined field of responsibility. For example, water courts in Colorado have jurisdiction to administer disputes arising over water rights. Jurisdiction can also be thought of as the geographical area to which such authority applies. For example, the 5th Judicial District has jurisdiction over the four-county mountain counties of Eagle, Summit, Clear Creek and Lake. Strictly speaking, the term "jurisdiction" refers to the granted authority and not to a geographical area.
New courthouse faces
In the 5th district there are six district court judges and four county court judges, neatly, one for each county in the district. Come the first of the new year, with the retirement of two district court judges, the 5th district will have some new faces. Accordingly, one-third of the district court bench will be newbies.
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How will the new judges be selected? But first, what qualifications does one need to be a district court judge? It may be less than you think.
The minimum requirements to be a district court judge in Colorado are that the person must be a qualified elector of the district at the time of appointment, must be a resident of the district during the term of appointment and must have been licensed to practice law in Colorado for at least five years. That's it. Almost. The person must also be vetted by a nominating committee and recommended to the governor.
Under Colorado's original constitution, judges were elected by the people. But in 1966, voters approved a constitutional initiative calling for "merit selection" of judges. Under Colorado's merit selection system, judges are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees submitted by a judicial nominating commission, and judges stand for retention at least two years after their appointment.
In districts such as the 5th, with populations greater than 35,000, there are three lawyer members and four non-lawyer members of the district nominating committee. Lawyer members of these commissions are appointed by majority action of the governor, attorney general, and chief justice; nonlawyer members are appointed by the governor.
What kind of lawyer?
There is no requirement that the lawyer members of the nominating commission are attorneys who actually appear before the court and this deserves at least a bit of extrapolation. You see, there are, generally speaking, two types of lawyers: litigators and "transactional" attorneys. While this is admittedly simplified, litigators go to court and transactional attorneys do not; instead, transactional attorneys generally prepare, review and broker legal documents and/or advise their clients about certain legal matters. Most lay persons would be surprised to learn that the "average" attorney seldom, if ever, appears before the court and seldom, if ever, tries a case. The reason this diversion is worthwhile is that the lawyers among the nominating committee are at times attorneys with little or no contact with the courts and so a commission may be comprised, by majority of persons who, however earnest, are not intimate with the daily slugfest of court proceedings.
But I diverge …
Once a bright new shiny judge is selected by the government and "be-robed," he or she will be "provisional" and will stand for retention two years later. What retention means is that the voters will vote to either retain the judge or boot him or her from the bench. Being booted is exceedingly rare and has only happened a handful of times in state history. This is likely a combination of two factors: first, most judges are truly earnest; second, the public in general knows very little about the day-to-day workings of the court and what kind of job any particular judge is doing.
There is, however, a safeguard if you will; in 1988, the general assembly established judicial performance commissions throughout the state to provide voters with information about the performance of judges seeking retention. In each judicial district, a commission evaluates district and county court judges. Evaluations of district and county court judges are based on questionnaires completed by those who have come into contact with the judge, including attorneys, litigants, jurors, crime victims, law enforcement personnel, social services caseworkers, probation officers and court personnel. Trial judge evaluations also incorporate relevant docket and sentencing statistics, an interview with the judge, a self-evaluation completed by the judge and information from other appropriate sources. Each evaluation includes a narrative profile with a "Retain," "Do Not Retain" or "No Opinion" recommendation.
Having survived the two-year auto-da-fe, the not-so-newly-minted judge will be appointed for a six-year term and will again face retention at the end of that term and any renewals of the term thereafter.
Come the new year, there will be a new sheriff in town. Well, not a sheriff really but two brand spanking new district court judges. If you have the opportunity, thank the retiring judges for their service and welcome the new arrivals. Judging is often thankless and difficult work which is most times exercised patiently and wisely.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, email@example.com.