Editorial: Incompetence and impropriety threaten Colorado’s judicial branch

Editorial: Incompetence and impropriety threaten Colorado’s judicial branch

Our faith in Colorado’s judicial system has been challenged by two startling investigations that have uncovered impropriety and incompetence from the top of Colorado’s courts down.

An eight-month investigation into a shady contract awarded to the Colorado judicial department’s former chief of staff found that former Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Coats hadn’t acted criminally in the deal but was rather out-of-touch, easily manipulated, and ill-equipped to manage a branch of government.

Consider for a moment that the investigation also might be a charitable assessment of Coats’ behavior given that key whistleblowers in the case refused to participate in this investigation because it was paid for by the court system. Coats has declined to comment on the investigation, awaiting completion of a separate investigation later this summer.

Mismanagement from the chief justice created a pervasive culture problem throughout the judicial department where employees were not reporting misconduct or problems but were rather keeping personal records to be used as leverage for their own personal needs later, the report said.

“Remarkably, this strategy seemed to work,” the report said. “The behavior was rewarded, such employees were often granted paid leave upon termination, and non-disclosure terms were inserted into their termination agreements.”

The Judicial Department’s integrity is of utmost importance. The investigation by Former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer and former Denver independent monitor Nick Mitchell lays out a long list of shortcomings by judges and other department employees. The investigators came up with 14 recommendations, many of which have already been adopted, but we fear it won’t be enough.

A separate investigation about judicial misconduct, harassment and sexism has been delayed by the overwhelming number of complaints.

The Denver Post’s Shelly Bradbury reported more than a year ago about the toxic work environment endured by seven women who came forward anonymously to share their stories and concerns.

“Every woman that I’ve worked with who has had the chutzpah to bring forward, ‘This is how I’m being treated by the men in my office,’ or, ‘Hey, this is how women are being overly sexualized and being treated with favoritism,’ or ‘Hey, this is not OK’ —  they’ve all been laid off, written up, disciplined, pushed out, moved over for promotion,” an employee who asked to remain anonymous told Bradbury in 2021. “Everybody, including myself.”

Keep in mind that this behavior is coming from the men and women who are responsible for impartially judging the actions of others, including presiding over criminal and civil harassment and discrimination cases.

At this point, we know that not only are employees in the judicial branch acting in manipulative and conniving ways but that valid complaints about harassment have been ignored or swept under the rug for years.

It’s time for a massive overhaul of the courts.

Thankfully a committee of lawmakers is meeting this summer on the very issue. We urge them to be bold, and aggressive and exercise their rightful check on an independent branch of government that is out of control.

Colorado Sen. Pete Lee is leading the charge, and he is right to focus on the ineffectiveness of the Commission on Judicial Discipline, which he said was “marginalized and ignored; disabled from doing its job.”

The Colorado Judicial Department needs permanent, aggressive external oversight; a new system for internal management that removes the duties of running an entire branch of government from the chief judge; increased transparency and openness that is made equal to the Colorado Open Records Act for other state agencies; and a general housecleaning that pushes out bad apples.

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