Election

Denver’s 2020 ballot: How to pick all those judges

Here’s how judge ratings work and who scored what. You won’t have to skip these questions this year!

Inside the Colorado Supreme Court room at the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Inside the Colorado Supreme Court room at the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) colorado supreme court; justice; law; civic center; denver; kevinjbeaty;

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In Colorado, judges are appointed by elected officials, but voters get to decide if they can stay on their benches after their terms expire. Your 2020 Denver ballot has 17 answer boxes for judges, ranging from the Colorado Supreme Court down to Denver County Court. So you have 17 yes/no questions to answer, should you choose to take on this civic responsibility.

The state of Colorado compiles official evaluations for each judge up for retention to help voters make their decisions. But each assessment takes up a lot of pages and it takes some digging to figure out how their system works.

Since about 30 percent of people who voted in the 2016 election did not answer questions about judges at all, we thought we’d break it down to make it easier for you.

Here’s a short answer if you don’t want to read further:

Colorado’s Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation says every judge up for retention on Denver’s 2020 ballot “meets performance standards,” meaning they think everyone deserves to be reinstalled.

We should note that just one person on this list, Denver County Judge Barry A. Schwartz, did not receive unanimous support from Denver’s commission. But he ultimately has been recommended for retention.

Other judges, who did receive unanimous recommendations, did not receive blanket approval from attorneys who have appeared before them. You’ll have to read on for that nuance.

“Voters should put their trust in the commission.”

That comes from Jordan Singer, a professor of law at New England Law in Boston who worked at the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. He’s studied judge evaluation systems across the nation for 15 years.

“Colorado’s system is probably the best of the country,” he told Denverite. “I’ve seen all of them, and most other jurisdictions are looking to Colorado for advice and ideas on how to do this properly.”

Each judicial district in Colorado has a ten-person commission that handles district and county judge evaluations. Six out of these ten in each district are not attorneys. These are the people who make official voter recommendations, and they deliberate amongst themselves to make these recommendations.

To make their decisions, commissioners use surveys collected from attorneys, witnesses and jurors who have actually been in courtrooms with the judges on your ballot. Those surveyed answer 31 questions, which sum up a judge’s aptitude in communication, knowledge of the law, courtroom management, demeanor, diligence and fairness. Separate surveys and commissions handle State Supreme Court and appellate judges.

Commissioners also draw on interviews with judges, the district attorney’s office, and public defenders’ office. They also send trained observers who are not attorneys to watch judges on the job.

Singer said all that makes Colorado’s system “thoughtful” and useful both for voters and judges who want to do better.

Judges in other states are elected, which Singer said can result in “wildly unqualified” people getting spots on the bench. Because Colorado’s judges are initially hired through rigorous processes that require approval from elected officials, we usually don’t have to worry about voting for someone who didn’t deserve the job in the first place.

The assessment system has been subject to criticism this year. Supporters of Adams County Judge Tomee Crespin say she did not deserve to be one of two judges statewide to receive a vote of no confidence this election cycle. The controversy centers around her demeanor, which the 17th District commission described as “demeaning and disrespectful.” State statute requires that demeanor be evaluated in these reviews – it’s also a category that put Denver County Judge Isabel Pallares in jeopardy of a no-confidence vote this year. Denver’s commission ended up voting unanimously to approve her – more on that below. Both judges are Latina.

Crespin’s supporters noted that survey results showed broad approval for the judge. Kent Wagner, who oversees Colorado’s Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation, said these surveys are just one tool commissioners use to make their decisions. It’s why you’ll see unanimous approval from Denver’s commission below, while some have less-than-stellar survey reviews.

There’s also an entire group dedicated demanding more transparency from the system. The Judicial Integrity Project alleges Colorado “intentionally” limits what info makes it into judge assessments. They’d like to see records on complaints against judges, criminal histories and potential financial conflicts of interest.

Each judge on your ballot received two assessments since their last retention (or initial hire, if they’re new): one midway through their term and one right before they had to decide if they would seek retention from voters. Judges who get bad reviews during their midterm evaluations often try to improve; how they improve plays into commissioners’ recommendations.

Singer said judges who do not receive positive recommendations in those second reviews usually “quietly decide to retire” to keep their poor records private. But that doesn’t always happen, and it’s rare for voters to actually read the state’s assessment and vote “no” on a judge who received bad marks.

One thing to note here: The standards that the state uses to evaluate judges were created under law in 1988, according to Wagner. His office doesn’t collect data on how judges’ sentences may vary across race, gender or income levels.

 

Here’s the breakdown of what the commission found for the judges up for retention in Denver. They’re in order as they appear on your ballot.

Colorado Supreme Court Judges

✅ Melissa HartMeets performance standards by a commission vote of 11-0.

Judge Hart was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper and has been on the court for just under three years.

In their report, the state’s commission for State Supreme Court justices lauded Hart for her “exceptional intellect,” “engagement with the community,” and “thoughtful and respectful approach” to those who appear before her.

In the 20-question survey for State Supreme Court justices, Hart received no less than a 3.3, out of four, in any category.

That 3.3 score was in the category: “Refraining from reaching issues that need not be decided.”

Has Hart met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 24 attorneys: 90 percent said yes. 5 percent said no.
  • Answers from 62 judges: 98 percent said yes. 2 percent said no.

Carlos A. Samour Jr. – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 11-0.

Judge Samour was appointed by Gov. Hickenlooper and has been on the court for two years.

According to the state’s evaluation, Samour is “courteous to attorneys and treats parties equally without regard to race, sex, or economic status” and was lauded for his insightful questions and “admirable” work ethic.

They also liked how he writes decisions: “He has a creative writing style that keeps the reader’s interest without compromising clarity.”

In the commission’s survey, Samour received no less than a score of 3.2, out of four, in any category.

His two lowest categories were: “Writing opinions that are clear” and “writing opinions that adequately explain the basis of the Court’s decision.” So – not everyone appreciates his style.

Has Samour met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 16 attorneys: 69 percent said yes. 13 percent said no.
  • Answers from 62 judges: 93 percent said yes. 7 percent said no.

Court of Appeals

Ted C. Tow III – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 11-0.

Judge Tow was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2018.

The state’s report says Tow’s opinions are “concise, well organized, logical, and understandable to the general public” and that his courtroom demeanor is “appropriate.”

In the 20-question survey for state appellate justices, Tow’s lowest score was a 2.5 out of 4 for “refraining from reaching issues that need not be decided.” He received a 2.6 for “making reasoned decisions based upon the law and facts” and 2.9 both for “being fair and impartial toward each side of the case” and “writing opinions that adequately explain the basis of the Court’s decision.” He scored above a three in every other category.

Has Tow met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 31 attorneys: 66 percent said yes. 31 percent said no.
  • Answers from 63 judges: 98 percent said yes. 2 percent said no.

Craig R. Welling – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 11-0.

Judge Welling was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2017.

In their report, the state’s commission acknowledged that some survey takers criticized Welling for his communication style in the courtroom. But they also sent in their own observers, which led them to counter that “Welling’s demeanor is professional and respectful.”

The commission also said Welling’s opinions are “somewhat lengthy,” but otherwise clear.

In his survey, Welling earned no less than a 3.1 in any category. His two lowest scores were for “making reasoned decisions based upon the law and facts” and “allowing parties to present their arguments and answer questions.”

Has Welling met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 33 attorneys: 84 percent said yes. 16 percent said no.
  • Answers from 63 judges: 98 percent said yes. 2 percent said no.

District Judges

Christopher J. Baumann – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Baumann was appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2017.

The commission’s report acknowledges he “scored slightly higher than average” in survey questions about his knowledge of law and his demeanor and “slightly below average” on diligence. He previously worked as a public defender in Denver and was an assistant to Attorney General Ken Salazar in 2004.

In his survey, Baumann scored no less than a 3.3 in any category.

Has Baumann met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 25 attorneys: 87 percent said yes. 4 percent said no.

Martin Foster Egelhoff – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Egelhoff was appointed to the District Court by Gov. Bill Owens in July 1999. This is his third recommendation for retention since he took the bench.

In the commission’s report, he is described as “an even-handed, fair jurist who efficiently manages his docket,” though he did receive some comments from attorneys who criticized his courtroom demeanor. Egelhoff, the report says, “expressed concern as to those comments and explained his ongoing willingness, process, and efforts to improve in that area.”

In his survey, Egelhoff scored no less than a 3.2. Those lowest scores were for “basing decisions on evidence and arguments” and “setting reasonable schedules for cases.”

Has Egelhoff met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 49 attorneys: 87 percent said yes. 9 percent said no.

John Eric Elliff – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Elliff was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter and took his seat in 2011. This is his second recommendation for retention since he took the bench.

The commission’s report says he was given ratings “slightly below the statewide average” in his application and knowledge of the law, his ability to communicate, his diligence and his demeanor. Still, the commission wrote they were overall “impressed” with his performance.

In his survey, Elliff scored no less than a 2.9 out of four. Those low marks were in “basing decisions on evidence and arguments,” “being fair and impartial to both sides of the case” and “using good judgment in application of relevant law and rules.”

Has Elliff met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 22 attorneys: 83 percent said yes. 17 percent said no.

A. Bruce Jones – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Jones was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter and took his seat in 2011. This is his second recommendation for retention since he took the bench.

The commission’s report says some survey respondents wrote complaints about Jones’ demeanor in the courtroom, but it also says he “explained steps he has taken to address those concerns and his interest in working to improve in that area.” As a result, the commission reported it was overall “impressed” with Jones’ performance.

In his survey, Jones received several perfect scores, though ten or less people weighed in for those categories. His lowest score was a 2.8, for “setting reasonable schedules for cases” and “being willing to handle cases on the docket even when they are complicated and time consuming.”

Has Jones met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 28 attorneys: 77 percent said yes. 23 percent said no.
  • Answers from 9 non-attorneys: 100 percent said yes.

Michael J. Vallejos – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Vallejos was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2010. This is his second recommendation for retention since he took the bench.

While the commission’s report noted Vallejos scored “slightly below average” in his knowledge and application of the law, he was rated “significantly above average” in fairness.

In his survey, Vallejos received no lower than a 2.9 out of four. That rating was in his ability to be “fair and impartial to both
sides of the case.”

Has Vallejos met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 33 attorneys: 84 percent said yes. 10 percent said no.

Elizabeth D. Leith – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Leith was appointed by Gov. Hickenlooper in 2011. This is her second recommendation for retention since she took the bench.

According to the commission’s report, Leith received very high marks from those who answered survey questions about her. Non-attorneys commented on her “compassion, patience and kindness” while one attorney made note of her “duty to the public.” She was also recognized for helping set up a virtual hearing system in the Denver jail and at Denver Health to keep business going during the pandemic.

In her survey, Leith received no less than a 3.3.

Has Leith met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 61 attorneys: 91 percent said yes. 2 percent said no.
  • Answers from 6 non-attorneys: 83 percent said yes. 17 percent said no (that is one person).

Denver County Judges

Beth Ann Faragher – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Faragher was appointed by Mayor Michael Hancock in 2014. This is her second recommendation for retention since she took the bench.

According to the commission’s report, attorneys who appeared before Faragher described her as “friendly and efficient.” They also complemented her for carefully going over rulings with people involved in cases she presided over.

But her survey shows two scores of one out of four, one for “giving reasons for rulings” and one for “willing to make decision without regard to possible outside pressure.” Both scores were issued by a single non-attorney. Jordan Singer, the judge evaluations expert, said people who have just lost a case can fill out these surveys, and their emotions about the case can influence their responses.

Faragher earned rankings above three out of four except in cases where only one non-attorney responded.

Has Faragher met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 34 attorneys: 88 percent said yes. 13 percent said no.

Isabel Pallares – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Mayor Hancock appointed Judge Pallares to the bench in 2017.

Like Adams County Judge Tomee Crespin (mentioned in the explainer section above), demeanor has been a problem for Pallares. While the commission notified her about “concerns” related to how she carries herself in the courtroom, their report says they were “impressed with her prompt, proactive efforts to address those concerns.”

Her survey also reveals attorneys gave her poor scores. Pallares’ lowest grade was a .7 out of four in “being fair and impartial to both sides of the case,” though it should be noted less than ten attorneys answered that question. In fact, many of the questions in her survey were answered by ten people or less.

Has Pallares met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 12 attorneys: 30 percent said yes. 50 percent said no.
  • Answers from 11 non-attorneys: 100 percent said yes.

Nicole M. Rodarte – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Mayor Hancock appointed Judge Rodarte in 2013. This is her second recommendation for retention since she took the bench.

The commission’s report notes Rodarte received overwhelming support from non-attorneys who were surveyed about her and that they were “impressed with her overall ratings.” Some comments submitted say she is “professional and compassionate” with a “measured sense of justice.” The review notes she regularly sends thank-you cards to jurors after cases are concluded.

In her survey, Rodarte scored no less than a 2.7, in both “basing decisions on evidence and arguments” and “being fair and impartial to both sides of the case.” Most of her ratings are above a three.

Has Rodarte met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 25 attorneys: 74 percent said yes. 22 percent said no.
  • Answers from 24 non-attorneys: 100 percent said yes.

Andre L. Rudolph – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Rudolph was appointed by Mayor John Hickenlooper in 2004. This is his fourth recommendation for retention since he took the bench.

According to the commission’s report, Rudolph “scored higher than average in all areas” compared to other county judges. That said, the report notes only nine attorneys returned surveys, which means results for eleven questions are “not statistically significant.”

In the survey, there were enough non-attorneys to make the rest of the questions count. In these scores, Rudolph received no less than a 3.5 out of four in any category.

Has Rudolph met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 25 non-attorneys: 100 percent said yes.

✅ Barry A. Schwartz – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 7-3.

Mayor Hancock appointed Judge Schwartz in 2017.

Schwartz was the only judge in Denver that did not receive unanimous support from commissioners, though it should be noted that he meets performance standards.

The commission’s report says it was “divided” in their ruling, and that he had been notified the body had “concerns that he exhibits a bias in favor of parties who represent themselves.” At their request, the report says, Schwartz started work on an “improvement plan” and “has taken steps to improve.” That’s one reason why he was ultimately given a passing grade.

In his survey, Schwartz’s lowest score was a 2.7 in “being fair and impartial to both sides of the case.” Still, most of his scores in other areas were above a three.

Has Schwartz met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 51 attorneys: 68 percent said yes. 23 percent said no.
  • Answers from 29 non-attorneys: 95 percent said yes. 5 percent said no.

Frances E. Simonet – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Judge Simonet was appointed by Mayor Hancock in 2017.

The commission’s report says her scores were “significantly higher than average for all County court judges standing for retention in every category.” Attorneys who have appeared before her have described her as “efficient and professional” with a “pleasant demeanor with a sense of humanity and understanding” and “very fair to both the prosecution and defense.” The commission said courtroom observations confirmed these reports.

In her survey, Simonet received no less than a 3.7 in any category.

Has Simonet met judicial performance standards?

  • Answers from 27 attorneys: 92 percent said yes. 8 percent said no.
  • Answers from 12 non-attorneys: 100 percent said yes.

Theresa Spahn – Meets performance standards by a commission vote of 10-0.

Mayor Hancock appointed Judge Spahn in 2014 and then named her presiding judge for the county court in 2017. This is her second recommendation for retention since she took the bench.

Since Spahn is the presiding judge, she spends less time than the rest listed here in a courtroom. Fewer people appear before her in court, so there aren’t a lot of responses to her survey. The commission’s report says “all of the other Denver County Court judges recently nominated Judge Spahn for the County Court Judge of the Year award from the Colorado Judicial Institute.” They were apparently pleased with her – one judge told the commission the judges made the unanimous decision since she’s “such an amazing and inspirational leader.” Her list of achievements, the commission wrote, were too numerous to include in the report.

In her survey, every question was answered by ten or fewer people. Her lowest score was a 2.3, given to her by three attorneys in two categories: “setting reasonable schedules for cases” and “basing decisions on evidence and arguments.”

Because there were so few respondents, the commission did not publish yes/no answers from attorneys on whether she meets performance standards.

Check out our comprehensive voting guide here. Happy voting!

Want some more? Explore other Election stories.

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