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Colorado Chief Justice Boatright emphasizes accountability and culture change in first State of the Judiciary speech

Thursday, February 18, 2021

DENVER – In his first State of the Judiciary speech, new Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright reiterated his personal commitment to address allegations of past sexual harassment, gender discrimination and an improper contract while overseeing wholesale culture change in the Judicial Branch.

Saying the branch faces “a crisis of confidence in its leadership,” Chief Justice Boatright was emphatic in “telling the citizens of Colorado that we’re going to get this right.”

“Where there was wrongdoing, we will address it,” he told the joint session of the General Assembly. “Where there was an abuse of power, we will stop it. Where our policies are deficient, we will change them. We want to know the truth.”

Earlier this week, the Court announced it was asking the state’s other government branches to select specialized, external investigators who will conduct independent investigations into the highly publicized allegations of misconduct, as well as the branch’s workplace culture.

Emphasizing that the investigations be done “by the book,” Chief Justice Boatright explained that the ad hoc panel will define the scope of the investigations and issue a Request for Proposal, which by state procurement law must remain open for 30 days.

The panel will award a comprehensive external investigation contract with no input from the Court.

“The judicial branch will not have any say in the selection process,” said Chief Justice Boatright. “We will cooperate with the investigations and will publicly release the results. We also hope these investigations will provide specific recommendations for additional changes that we can make to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for all members of the branch going forward.”

He added that, “Until the investigation is completed and any recommendations are implemented, I am to be made aware of any new allegations of misconduct and kept apprised of the progress of any investigation on a weekly basis.”

The Chief Justice acknowledged that investigating and addressing the allegations within the branch will be a long and difficult process but added “we are committed to seeing it through to the end. This will result in a culture change, and we are going to make sure that happens.”

Chief Justice Boatright noted progress the Court has already made in changing the Judiciary’s culture over the last two years:

  • Establish fixed terms for Chief Justice so fresh perspectives rotate in every few years.
  • Engaged employees in selecting a new State Court Administrator, Director of Finance and Director of Court Services.
  • Assigned justices as liaisons with different departments or functions, rather than the Chief Justice holding sole administration oversight.
  • Established a Bench Diversity Dream Team with help from Colorado’s Center for Legal Inclusiveness and hired a Judicial Outreach Coordinator to generate more diverse recruiting. The Bench Dream Team, with key collaborator Judge Gary Jackson, were pleased to see Governor Polis appoint more Black women to the bench in one year between September 1, 2019 and August 31, 2020 than in the previous 25 years combined. Overall, some 59 percent of judges appointed by the governor during that same time period were women.
  • Increased training on issues of racial equality with a series of webinars.
  • Created an inclusivity, diversity, equity and anti-racism committee in the Court of Appeals to combat systemic racism and injustice that, among other things, spearheaded changes to Court of Appeals strategic plan regarding diversity and inclusion.
  • Added a new rule of criminal procedure, Rule 55.1, to bring greater transparency and accessibility to court records and places limits on the ability of judges to seal court records. The rule takes effect on May 1.

The Chief Justice said the branch faces a second crisis in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that department employees on the front lines of trial courts and probation officers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. “Their actions have been heroic,” he said.

He asked the Governor and General Assembly for help in addressing the unprecedented trial backlog created by the pandemic. While on average 2,716 jury trials occur in any year, 2021 began with a backlog of more than 14,600, with 10,000 of those being in criminal court.

With thousands of scheduled trials soon facing ninety-day or six-month deadlines under existing state law, the Chief Justice advocated for three initiatives:

  • More flexibility to allow recently retired judges to try more cases.
  • Additional staff and magistrates.
  • Flexibility around the statutory requirement of a jury trial within six months for anyone who pleads not guilty.

The Chief Justice specifically praised the probation department, saying it is often not given enough credit for its cost-effective process of supervising offenders. Despite adaptations required by the pandemic, they are “providing offenders with the rehabilitation and support they need to regain control of their lives and contribute meaningfully to society.”

Read or view Chief Justice Boatright’s entire speech here.

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