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'Access to justice requires us to address these biases': CO judge's order aims to reduce bias in the courtroom

Judge Jon Olafson's courtroom civility order addresses race, religion and pronouns.
Judge Jon Olafson
Posted at 11:28 AM, Jul 02, 2024

On the journey to the bench, Judge Jon Olafson wanted to bring his identity with him.

"Back in 2001 after I finished law school, I came out," said Olafson. "I'm a gay man, and there's, you know, not as many LGBTQ judges around the country."

Olafson is the only district court judge in Denver with his pronouns (he/him/his) displayed prominently on the front door of his courtroom.

He was concerned about push-back when he decided he wanted to make the courtroom a more inclusive place. But just before Olafson's mother passed away, she gave him advice that he took to heart.

"Every once in a while, when I need that extra boost, I hear my mom in my head saying, 'You show them who you are, and you give them hell, kid,'" Olafson said.

Olafson has been Colorado's 2nd Judicial District Court judge for about seven months. One of his first moves under that title was to introduce a civility order.

"It's something a little bit different and something that not a lot of courts are doing, but there's a lot of talk about it," said Olafson. "Like, what are we doing to create an environment that is freer from bias?"

The order urges parties to use gender-neutral titles when it's practical. It also encourages parties to leave out personal identity characteristics — such as race, sex, or sexual orientation — unless they're relevant to the dispute. Even then, parties are encouraged to ask how others identify.

"Frankly, part of my job as a judicial officer is to protect against that bias because fundamental fairness — access to justice — requires us to address these biases head-on," said Olafson.

Studies show bias in courtrooms can have devastating impacts. According to the University of Michigan Law School, Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes. A study in the Justice Policy Journal found jurors have been found to treat gay and lesbian victims of crime more negatively than similarly situated heterosexual victims.

Joyce Akhahenda, lead attorney with the Colorado State Public Defender's Denver Office, said she has seen the impact of bias play out many times in the courtroom.

"You're not looking at the person necessarily based upon the evidence that is presented in the courtroom or the evidence that is there," said Akhahenda. "But instead, you're allowing these ideas and thoughts that you have to influence what you think regarding the case."

Annie Martinez, litigation director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, said people often feel intimidated in courtroom settings.

"If you don't feel comfortable accessing the courtroom because you know you're not going to be met where you're at and who you are, that is a barrier to accessing justice," said Martinez.

Olafson's order is already gaining attention in the legal community. Alexi Freeman, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law has utilized the order in her own classroom instruction. She has students consider how it could apply to their own lives.

"I have students brainstorm steps their respective internship placements could take, as well as what they need to do as individuals," said Freeman. "Most students react very positively. Some are surprised initially that we need such an order, as it seems obvious to them that people should be addressed with proper names and pronouns."

Some courts across the country are adopting similar orders. Utah allows parties to include a “Notice of Pronouns” when filing court documents. Michigan, Washington, and Massachusetts have taken similar measures.

Ryann Peyton, director of the Colorado Supreme Court's Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program (CAMP), said most judges already issue procedural and decorum orders and expectations, but the addition of inclusion standards is a way to create meaningful change.

"Judge Olafson’s inclusive order is an innovative example of how judges can be leaders in reducing bias in the courtroom," said Peyton. "Change starts at the top. And as those most responsible for upholding justice, judges can leverage their role in the system to create courtroom procedures and expectations to ensure that justice is administered impartially and equitably."

There are other efforts in Colorado courts to reduce bias. The Colorado Supreme Court released guideline jury instructions in 2023 that specifically state, "You must not allow unconscious bias to influence your verdict."

While efforts to decrease bias in the courtroom appear to be gaining traction, Freeman said the efforts aren't always well-received.

"Efforts to promote belonging and establish inclusive work environments are still very much needed across the country, but pushback continues," said Freeman. "I am hopeful that Judge Olafson's order will be replicated, but I suppose it remains to be seen."

Though still early in his tenure as judge, Olafson hopes to embody the change he wants to see in the courtroom.

"I want to show that I can be my authentic self and be in this role of community trust," said Olafson. "I can do so proudly, but I can also do so in a manner that is sensitive to the different biases that are out there, biases that I have been part of and that I've experienced."

Seven people and five pets displaced after duplex fire Friday evening

Seven people and five pets are displaced after a duplex fire, according to the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD).

CSFD responding to a second alarm house fire on the south west side of the city

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