DENVER — Chief Justice Brian Boatright painted a rosy picture of the reforms that have been underway within Colorado's judicial branch ever since allegations of misconduct surfaced.
The allegations stem from a $2.5 million, five-year contract for judicial training that was awarded to a former employee who allegedly threatened a sexual discrimination lawsuit if she was fired.
According to an internal memo, the allegations against judges included an instance where a judge sent a pornographic video out using a judicial email, and another instance where a judge exposed and rubbed his chest on a female employee’s back without any action being taken against him.
Since then, two investigations were conducted to look into issues within the department, and an interim legislative committee was formed to discuss potential reforms.
In his last State of the Judiciary address, Boatright promised to address the wrongdoing and take steps to bring more transparency into the department.
Friday’s biannual address to a joint session of the state legislature was the first since serious reforms were proposed.
In his speech, Boatright said the branch had committed itself to thorough and transparent investigations. He said he believes that the branch has lived up to those commitments.
However, a report by The Denver Post, Denver7’s media partner, found that members of the Colorado Supreme Court privately lobbied lawmakers to delay a bill to revamp the state’s process for disciplining judges.
Boatright told lawmakers that he does not want to dwell on the past, but spent his speech talking about what they are doing moving forward, starting with improving business operations. He said the branch is also working to empower employees and listening to stakeholders on potential reforms.
The chief justice said several justices decided to visit all of the state’s courthouses and speak with the 4,000 employees and more than 300 judges under their purview. In those conversations, he said employees were more worried about compensation with an expensive housing market and inflation than they were in investigations into wrongdoing.
However, Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, told Denver7 that could be because of both economic factors and a fear of speaking up to some of the highest officers in the court with their concerns.
In his address, Boatright admitted that while the reports showed many employees had a positive review of the workplace culture, women responded less positively.
“Most upsetting to me was learning that some of our employees did not feel comfortable reporting unacceptable behavior or workplace concerns due to fear of retaliation,” Boatright said. “That is not acceptable, and we will do better.”
To that end, Boatright made two budgetary requests of state lawmakers to help with the reforms. First, he asked for money to form an organizational ombudsman who would provide a safe place for employees to get support.
“An organizational ombudsman would provide a safe place for employees to get assistance, support and resources for workplace issues involving non-judge staff while maintaining an independent complaint and investigation process,” Boatright said.
The second budget request was for additional resources for training as the branch revises its rules and better defines leadership roles.
However, the budget requests bring with them a number of questions for Weissman, who sat on the interim committee to reform the judicial discipline process.
“Where is an ombudsman’s office or offices going to be located? What are the lines of reporting? Who's ultimately in charge? And can the people in, can legislators here have confidence in those funds? Those are the key questions that we're going to be grappling with,” Weissman said.
It’s also a tighter financial situation in the state with inflation and fewer federal dollars flowing in.
While the judicial branch is looking within itself to create change, state lawmakers have also proposed a bill and a concurrent resolution to force the department to change.
“We've had years of revelations reported in the media that had been really difficult to watch for me as a legislator, for me as an attorney and an officer of the court,” Weissman said.
The concurrent resolution aims to reform the judicial discipline process. To do that, though, voters would need to approve a change to the Colorado constitution in 2024.
The concurrent resolution and subsequent ballot measure call for the Colorado Supreme Court’s powers over judicial discipline proceedings to be reduced. It also offers some protections and a formal process for people who come forward with complaints.
“Right now, two different functions are kind of lumped together — the investigation phase and what's called the adjudication phase. It's more appropriate to separate those out, have different groups doing those two different things. That's more consistent with modern best practice,” Weissman said.
Another concern is the veil of secrecy for the judicial disciplinary proceedings, where the media and the public are left in the dark. Weissman says one of the changes will make it so that the disciplinary discussions become public as soon as formal proceedings begin.
Weissman says these changes would make investigations into judicial misconduct more transparent, modern and bring Colorado in line with most other states.
Lawmakers also want to see a clear set of mechanisms put into place where if certain issues are present, then all seven justices would be recused and a different panel would come in to decide on a particular issue.
Currently, the Supreme Court has the power to rule on and decide of punishments for judges who are found guilty of misconduct.
In the end, Weissman says there is a lot of work still to be done to reform the judicial department, but said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are committed to finding a way forward.
“I want folks to have confidence that legislators in this building, have been very concerned and have worked very hard on it,” he said.
Related stories: Colorado judicial branch allegations