PUEBLO, Colorado — The Colorado Supreme Court recently overturned a court order issued in a criminal case in Pueblo. The defendant in the case, James Justice, rejected a plea offer from prosecutors. His attorneys then requested the judge order mediation to force the district attorney's office back to the bargaining table. The trial court granted the order.
The 20-page opinion was published last Monday and concludes that the trial court erred because it lacked the authority to require the parties to mediate the cases.
Justice faces multiple felony charges in four open criminal cases. The arrest warrants accuse him of throwing improvised explosives into the yard of his neighbor's home, and at the police during an incident on May 24, 2020.
Justice is also accused of assaulting a deputy at the Pueblo County Jail in July 2020. He was arrested again on January 29, 2021, after shooting at police officers along North Elizabeth Street.
He is also accused of setting his ex-girlfriend's car on fire, throwing a screwdriver at her, and then spitting on one of the police officers during his arrest in July 2019.
The Supreme Court opinion notes that District Court Judge Allison Ernst relied on the Dispute Resolution Act, a law governing civil court cases, to support granting the mediation order.
Tenth Judicial District Attorney Jeff Chostner appealed the order directly to the State Supreme Court.
The opinion was written by Justice Carlos Samour and clarifies that prosecutors have sole discretion in offering plea agreements under state law governing criminal proceedings.
"The court has no role in the process," the opinion states.
Samour writes that mediation in a criminal case is not necessary for the proper functioning of the court.
"Doing so may hinder the court's proper functioning because, as arguably occurred here, it may inadvertently land the court smack in the middle of the plea bargaining process and compromise the court's role as a neutral arbiter," Samour wrote.
News 5 asked retired 10th Judicial District Chief Judge Dennis Maes to help explain the ruling.
"I could see how the prosecution would walk away from this saying, wait a minute, we made the plea offer judge. Are you suggesting to us that you don't like it," Maes said.
He explained a judge runs the risk of appearing biased, even without meaning to, simply by ordering mediation in plea negotiations."
"The one thing you don't want to be as a trial judge is to appear to be impartial in one way or another, and you may do that even innocently by suggesting one thing or another," Maes said.
District Attorney Chostner told News 5 in a statement his office was greatly heartened by the decision.
"The People as represented by our office should not be forced into a process it doesn't believe protects the People," Chostner said.
Justice is represented in his criminal cases by both lawyers from the Colorado Public Defender's Office as well as a private attorney.
Public Defender Ian King declined to comment saying it would be unprofessional and unethical for him to do so under the rules of professional conduct.
Judge Ernst also declined citing the Judicial Code of Conduct which prohibits judges from publicly discussing cases.
Justice's private attorney, Michael Emmons, did not return our calls.
Justice remains in custody in the Pueblo County jail on a $500,00 cash-only bond.
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