Judicial Department Scandals Push Discipline Commission into the Spotlight
Executive director calls lack of records matching recent revelations “puzzling”

by Jessica Folker

Reports of misconduct have rocked the state’s judicial branch this month, bringing new attention to the role of the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline and its mostly confidential process for sanctioning judges who break ethics rules.

Earlier this month, the Denver Post reported that the judicial department had given a $2.5 million contract to former State Court Administrator’s Office chief of staff Mindy Masias to stop her from filing a sexual discrimination lawsuit that threatened to expose at least 20 instances of conduct by judges.

Days later, the Colorado Supreme Court released a memo detailing several alleged incidents of sexual harassment and judicial misconduct, including a judge who sent a pornographic video using an official email account, a judge who “rubbed his hairy chest” on a female employee, and a law clerk who accused a Court of Appeals judge of harassment and was later offered a release agreement to protect the judge.

In the wake of the revelations, the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline has sought to clarify its role and what it knew of the allegations. According to a Feb. 12 news release from the commission, a review of records from the past five years failed to yield a referral from the SCAO or office of the Chief Justice that matches the “limited details reported publicly” about allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination detailed in the Colorado Supreme Court memo.

CCJD Executive Director William Campbell said complaints from court staff about a judge’s conduct may come to the commission directly or may be referred through SCAO human resources staff. According to Campbell, the commission and the SCAO’s human resources division have long had a good working relationship, so the lack of referrals resembling the recent scandal has come as a surprise.

“It’s puzzling to us. The HR people have always been very cooperative,” Campbell said. “And we’ve had every reason to believe that if they found something that needed attention, they would refer it to us.”

Campbell said the commission is continuing to check its records for anything that might have been missed, and he noted that some of the alleged misconduct by judges might be “purely administrative” in nature, placing it outside the scope of the commission, which only addresses complaints alleging violations of judicial ethics. For example, he said, complaints about hiring, firing, training and benefits could fall within the scope of the SCAO’s administrative duties rather than the commission’s jurisdiction.

The commission receives an average of 180 complaints about judges each year, with a total of 221 received in 2019, according to the commission’s most recent annual report. The vast majority of these complaints are dismissed as non-meritorious, and in 2019 Campbell dismissed 211 complaints that did not provide a “reasonable basis” for beginning disciplinary proceedings, according to the report.

Such complaints are often filed by parties who are upset about a judge’s decision in a case, according to Campbell, and criminal and domestic matters often spur complaints against judges, though these grievances should be handled through an appeal to a higher court, not the disciplinary commission. The commission also receives and dismisses many complaints each year about the conduct of attorneys and law enforcement.

Colorado is not unique in this regard. According to Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics at the National Center for State Courts, typically more than 90% of grievances filed by the public with judicial conduct commissions nationwide are dismissed without a formal complaint or full investigation by the commission. As in Colorado, complaints are often dismissed because they target people or matters beyond the scope of the commissions’ authority.

A total of 49 complaints submitted to the CCJD in 2019 alleged bias, prejudice or lack of impartiality, according to the commission’s annual report. Allegations involving criminal law matters such as warrants, bonds and sentencing were made in 38 complaints, according to the report, while 34 complaints involved domestic relations matters such as parenting plans, divorce and domestic violence.

Five complaints in 2019 alleged “administrative issues” and harassment involving colleagues or staff, and five alleged racial, gender or transgender discrimination. The commission’s annual reports from the past five years show there were 10 complaints alleging “administrative issues” involving staff or colleagues from 2015 to 2019, and 12 complaints alleged racial, gender or LGBT discrimination during the same period. Complaints may contain multiple grounds for allegations.

Two complaints were filed against Court of Appeals judges in 2019, according to the report, and one concerned a Supreme Court justice. Annual reports from recent years show a total of nine complaints were filed against the judges of the Court of Appeals from 2015 to 2019, while two were filed against Supreme Court justices during the same period.

The Colorado Constitution requires the commission to keep complaints confidential unless and until the commission files recommendations for public sanctions with the Supreme Court. According to data from the Center for Judicial Ethics, Colorado is one of 12 states where disciplinary proceedings are kept secret until the judicial conduct commission recommends public censure. In three other states plus the District of Columbia, proceedings remain confidential until a court orders public discipline. In the other 35 states, judicial discipline proceedings are made public sometime between the filing of formal charges and a fact-finding hearing.

Campbell said the Supreme Court has been “accommodating” in allowing the commission to adopt a few measures for greater transparency, including the publication of its annual reports. The reports, usually published in May or June, contain data on the number and nature of complaints, investigations and sanctions given without naming names, places or dates, except in cases of public censure.

Only two judges were publicly censured by the Supreme Court in 2019. In December 2019, the Supreme Court issued a public censure to 21st Judicial District Judge Lance Timbreza, who earlier that year pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol. Timbreza was suspended from his judicial duties without pay for 28 days.

The other public case detailed in the commission’s 2019 report was that of former Court of Appeals Judge Laurie Booras, whose racist remarks about a colleague earned her a temporary suspension by the Supreme Court in 2018. The Commission on Judicial Discipline recommended Booras be removed from office, and her case was carried over to 2019. Booras resigned in January of 2019, and the Supreme Court concluded acceptance of her resignation, imposition of public censure and ordering her to pay the commission’s costs in the case were an appropriate sanction.

Other judges to face public disciplinary charges in recent years include former El Paso County Judge Jonathan Walker, who retired in 2017 to avoid formal proceedings for alleged misconduct including creating a hostile work environment for court staff, and former Larimer County Judge Robert Rand, who resigned from the bench in 2014 to end formal proceedings against him for “undignified conduct,” including inappropriate comments to and about court staff, attorneys and defendants.

In 2020, the Supreme Court publicly censured former Weld County District Court Judge Ryan Kamada for multiple ethics violations. Kamada resigned from the bench in 2019 and has pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for obstructing an investigation into a drug ring.

The commission recommends private sanctions in other cases. In 2019, a judge was privately censured for “promot[ing] excessive drinking” among court staff at a conference hotel, which led to a consensual sexual relationship between the judge and a staff member that continued at the courthouse, according to the commission’s most recent report. After the relationship ended, the judge and staff member “had an increasingly stressful employment relationship,” the report states, and the impact on the work environment “was addressed by the private censure of the judge’s conduct” and an order requiring the judge to seek counseling.

Campbell said he wants to assure the public that the commission takes its role seriously. Despite the scandals that have shaken the judicial branch, Campbell still believes Colorado’s merit-based judicial selection system leads to fewer substantive ethics complaints than in other states, particularly those where judges are elected.

“My colleagues who do this across the country, we get together once a year for a conference and some of the stories they relate about judges who were elected through partisan elections tend to just be sometimes off the wall,” Campbell said. “They do weird things. And we just don’t have as many of those situations as other states, to be frank about it.”

This complete article appears in the Feb. 22 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.