Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice: We Recognize The Branch Faces A Crisis Of Confidence

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright swears in members of the House as the the Colorado General Assembly opened its 2021 session on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

In a tearful speech to lawmakers on Thursday, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian Boatright said his branch of government is amid a “crisis of confidence” in leadership and he vowed a “culture change.”

“I know every member of the branch wants answers and wants to get this right,” Boatright said. “Every judicial officer … every probation officer, even though they may not be proud of me at this time, I want to say I am proud of each and every one of them.”

Boatright’s annual State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Colorado House and Senate members comes amid allegations of judicial misconduct and harassment in the judicial branch, first reported by The Denver Post. 

The allegations include claims of sexism made by a former employee. Former Chief Justice Nathan Coats is accused of directing a multimillion dollar contract to her, in hopes of keeping her quiet about various stories of judicial misconduct and mismanagement she had threatened to reveal. The woman knew about the details of the misconduct because of her role in the branch’s Human Resources department, the Post reported.

The misconduct claims were laid out in a two-page memo that the state judicial branch recently released.

“I’m not here to comment on any of those claims or conjecture except to say that the branch takes the allegations of misconduct by judges and staff extremely seriously,” Boatright said. “The conduct described in the allegations, if accurate, is unacceptable.”

Coates reached the department’s mandatory retirement age last year and stepped down from the bench. Boatright, who was picked for the role by his colleagues on the high court, took over as Chief Justice on January 1

During his speech, Boatright gave details of an independent panel the state judicial department is putting together with representatives from Gov. Jared Polis’ office, state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office and members of the legislature. That panel will decide on the scope of an investigation and hire an independent counsel, or outside firm, to do a full probe into what happened, Boatright said.

“The judicial branch will have no say with the selection process. We will cooperate with the investigation and we will release the results,” he said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright on the House floor as the the Colorado General Assembly opened its 2021 session on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Boatright said the department and state courts have been trying to keep up with a record backlog of jury trials they haven’t been able to conduct.

Usually, he said, Colorado courts hold 2,700 jury trials a year -- 2,400 of them criminal in nature. 

As of the beginning of 2021, state courts had more than 14,000 trials scheduled statewide -- more than 10,000 of them criminal trials.

“Crime has not stopped, serious crime has not stopped,” Boatright said. “We come here asking for help.”

Many of the defendants are bumping up against the 6-month speedy trial requirement currently in state law. Boatright asked that lawmakers consider suspending those deadlines to allow courts to catch up.

He acknowledged there may be anger among lawmakers about the department’s controversy, but he urged them to act thoughtfully.

“Don’t take anger out on trial courts and probation, because that’s about serving the people of this state,” he told the chamber. “If you're going to be mad, be mad at me.”

Boatright also told state lawmakers that much of the probation department has had to adapt during the COVID-19 restrictions -- a challenge, he said, since for many people on probation the key to success is connecting with their probation officer. 

“Our probation officers have made adjustments … and have remained committed,” he said. “I want to remind everyone that probation is the most cost effective method for supervising offenders.”

He said a person in prison costs the state $46,866 a year, while overseeing an offender on probation is a fraction of that -- $1,662.

Boatright acknowledged he is facing adversity -- and beseeched state lawmakers to remember that it is important the state judicial branch maintain its independence and integrity.

“We will think anew and we will act anew,” he said. “I want to assure you that we, as the judicial branch, will bring the clear-eyed perspective, energy and determination to tackling the challenges that face the branch … during these trying times. We are committed to lifting the clouds over the branch.”