Colorado’s judicial discipline system has an inherent conflict of interest with justices writing rules governing their black-robed brethren, according to a Denver attorney who wants to change the state Constitution and move judicial discipline to the state’s Independent Ethics Commission.
Chris Forsyth, a Denver worker’s compensation attorney, is executive director of the Judicial Integrity Project, a nonprofit that hopes to gather more than 98,000 signatures by June to ask voters to move judicial discipline out of the judiciary and into the state’s ethics system.
“I have seen instances in 20 years of practicing law of judges behaving inappropriate,” Forsyth told Watchdog.org. “And the higher up you go into the court of appeals and supreme court, the more they understand that they are above the law.”
As an example, Forsyth cites Supreme Court rules requiring the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline to dismiss complaints if the issue centers around a disputed ruling that could be appealed. He notes that CCJD dismisses 97 percent of complaints, and Watchdog.org reported in 2014 that CCJD has only made three disciplinary cases public in its 50-year history.
Forsyth doesn’t have the funding to launch a huge signature drive needed to get on the ballot. So he has come up with a novel approach of asking people to print the petitions from his website, gather a few signatures, have them notarized and mail them to his Judicial Integrity Project.
“If we have 5,000 people each gather 24 signatures, we’ll have enough to get on the ballot,” he said.
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William Campbell, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, declined to weigh in on the proposed amendment.
“We are going to discuss this at our February meeting,” he wrote in response to a Watchdog.org email requesting an interview on the topic. “Until then, it would be inappropriate for me to comment.”
Forsyth said he was subjected to inappropriate disciplinary action when he complained about judicial misconduct to the Denver police and was brought up on an attorney ethics complaint. The complaint was not sustained, and he has no public discipline on the state’s attorney regulation website.
“The reason they attempted to discipline me in the first place is I had spoken out,” he said, adding that running a ballot initiative protects him from judicial retaliation because any criticism of judges is now clearly political speech.
But the entity Forsyth hopes will take up judicial misconduct has its own problems. People have been critical of the state ethics commission, saying it isn’t well funded and has few staff members.
Forsyth said the CCJD’s budget would be moved to the ethics commission to help fund the state ethics body and make it more effective.
The state ethics commission is currently without a director, and the appointed chairman did not return an email seeking comment on the proposed constitutional amendment.
It’s not clear how much additional money the IEC could expect if it takes over CCJD’s duties. CCJD’s Campbell previously refused to release his budget to Watchdog.org, saying the judiciary’s 2012 self-exemption from state open records laws allows him to keep it secret.
The initiative would only have the ethics commission oversee judges, likely leaving judicial administrators and staff to avoid state ethics scrutiny.
Forsyth said that happened because he had to draft the initiative narrowly, but judicial branch staff should be subject to state ethics rules like employees of the legislative and executive branches.
“The language right now is that (the ethics commission) doesn’t have jurisdiction over judicial employees,” he said. Under the initiative “that would change but I don’t know if the ethics commission would take up those cases.”