The former Weld County District Court judge who was censured by the Colorado Supreme Court last week is just the fourth judge in the state to receive public discipline in the last decade — highlighting the largely secret process used to correct judges who violate ethical or professional rules.
Colorado shields judges accused of misconduct in the vast majority of cases, and its discipline process offers judges more privacy than in 35 other states, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Because of the state’s constitution, the public is barred from knowing which judges committed what offenses except for in the most egregious cases, or in cases in which the misconduct becomes public apart from the confidential proceedings.
Colorado judges were disciplined privately 51 times between 2010 and 2019 for offenses ranging from failing to issue timely rulings to having a sexual relationship with a member of the court staff, according to annual reports from the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline.
Critics say the secrecy undermines public confidence in the state’s judges and allows judges to escape public scrutiny for their missteps, while proponents argue the confidentiality protects judges from false accusations and encourages genuine and honest participation in the discipline process.
“We need to be able to trust that judges are maintaining the highest level of professionalism in their job duties,” said Chris Forsyth, executive director of The Judicial Integrity Project, a Colorado group focused on reforming judicial discipline. “The lack of transparency undermines that.”
But William Campbell, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, said he felt confidentiality is “defensible and necessary.”
“If it’s not done in a spotlight, people are more willing to complain to us and have us look at it, and judges are more likely to be thoughtful in their response, rather than thinking they’ve got to have a good quote for the newspaper,” he said.
Discipline for the nearly 400 judges and justices who sit on county and district courts, Denver’s juvenile and probate courts, the Colorado Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court is all handled through the commission, which consists of a volunteer board led by Campbell, who is paid.
The commission takes in close to 200 complaints a year, and Campbell dismisses about 90% of them as soon as they are received for procedural reasons, like the issue not falling under the commission’s jurisdiction or the complaint being a matter of law that should be handled in an appeals court, rather than by the disciplinary commission.
The remaining 10% of complaints are reviewed by the volunteer board, which decides whether to discipline the judge, and whether to do it privately or publicly. Most judges are disciplined through “informal proceedings” that often result in a private admonition, reprimand or censure.
The details of discipline usually become public only if the commission moves a case into “formal proceedings,” and even then only are made public at the very end of the process, when the commission makes a recommendation to the state Supreme Court on what discipline is warranted.
The secret discipline process stands in stark contrast with the court system as a whole, which was built on public proceedings, said Paul Chessin, an attorney who has argued for more transparency in the attorney discipline process.
“There is a long tradition that judicial proceedings are public, because that instills the public’s confidence and trust that the system is working,” he said. “Proceedings in secret do the opposite. Then, there is a perception that the actions taken are arbitrary or capricious or perhaps could be playing favorites.”
Colorado is one of just 12 states where the process is confidential until a recommendation for public discipline is filed, according to the National Center for State Courts. In most states, the allegations against judges become public when formal charges are filed or once a judge has had a chance to respond to formal charges.
“Colorado is in the more anti-transparency, privacy-protection rank,” said Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution and former president of the Federal Judicial Center.
He said the discipline process must walk a line between protecting the reputation of judges and the court system from baseless accusations and bringing legitimate misconduct to light. Most judicial disciplinary bodies in the U.S. receive a high number of false or frivolous complaints, he said.
“Judges have to accept the fact that when they accept the judicial office, they’re going to be expected to have the public know about their lives in a way that non-judges don’t, but you don’t want to make the transparency so transparent that it scares away people who would otherwise be willing to serve,” he said.
Although most complaints are dismissed in Colorado for procedural reasons, there’s no way for the public to check that, Forsyth said. He’d like to see the process be open to inspection from the initial request for investigation. He pointed to Ryan Kamada, the ex-judge in Weld County who on Monday was publicly censured for tipping his friend off to a drug investigation and making inappropriate comments about people in his courtroom.
“Now we are hearing litigants who said they complained about this guy,” he said. “Were there complaints filed with the Judicial Discipline Commission before all this happened? … We don’t know.”
Besides Kamada, the three other judges who have been publicly disciplined since 2010 are Laurie Booras, who called another judge “the little Mexican,” Robert Rand, who made misogynistic and inappropriate comments, and Lance Timbreza, who was charged with driving under the influence.
While Campbell defended the confidential system, he said the office has increased its transparency since he took charge 11 years ago. The commission created a website to reach a wider audience, and began giving a summary of discipline cases without identifying the judges involved in its annual reports, he said.
“We try to take something that is required to be done in private, and as much as we can, disclose what is going on,” he said.
This content was originally published here.