This story first appeared in The Colorado Independent.
By Corey Hutchins
Making your way through your Colorado ballot, you’re forgiven for being stumped by the judge retention questions.
If you’re lucky, you’ve never found yourself in front of any of the handful of judges on your ballot before, but it’s still up to you whether to retain them. State judges in Colorado are appointed by politicians, but are only allowed to stay on the bench only if voters say so.
So how do you know whether a judge is a good egg or a bad one?
It turns out there are entire commissions, called the Colorado Commissions on Judicial Performance, devoted to this very question.
These panels evaluate state judges and publish their findings in what’s called the “Blue Book,” which goes out to every registered voter prior an election. You should have gotten yours already, and if you kept it around you might consult it to see how those judges on your ballot fared in reviews by lawyers and the commission members. If you already threw out your Blue Book, find an online version here.
Evaluations for these judges in Colorado are available to the public online. “If a voter wishes, they can click back through the data itself. The data can go 70 to 80 questions, and the questions asked are thorough with categories and several questions under each category,” according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, which, full disclosure, I worked on.
Here’s more from the SII:
“I believe the evaluations are comprehensive and complete with respect to the statute and rules governing the work of judicial performance commissions,” said Kent Wagner, director of the Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation.
The Colorado Judicial Review Commission, which analyzes the performance of judges and evaluates their effectiveness, tends to give better grades to male judges, according to data reporting by The Durango Herald in 2014.
In 2014, when the Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation evaluated Supreme Court Justice Brian Boatright, the commission “conducted a personal interview with Justice Boatright, read opinions that he authored, observed him in court, reviewed his self-evaluation, and reviewed survey responses from attorneys and judges regarding his performance.
Among the survey questions was ‘how strongly do you recommend that Justice Boatright be retained or not retained in office?’ Of attorneys responding to this question, 66% recommended to retain, 15% not to retain, and 19% made no recommendation regarding retention. Of judges responding to this question, 97% recommended to retain, 1% not to retain, and 2% made no recommendation regarding retention.
Reading the narratives in your Blue Book about state judges is important, and it turns out most Colorado voters might not do enough of it.
Since 1998, only three judges have lost elections following a ‘do not retain’ recommendation, KUSA 9News found in an investigation earlier this year.
In other words, even when the government itself says a Colorado judge isn’t a keeper, voters tend to cast ballots to retain them anyway.
“On average, a judge deemed unfit to stay on the bench will win re-election in Colorado with 54 percent of the vote,” 9News reported.
So… to the Blue Books, voters. And this time, read up on those judges.