Ballot initiatives would have impact on judges

Amendments are aimed at increasing judicial accountability

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A Wheat Ridge man is behind a pair of ballot initiatives that he hopes will “bring back accountability” to Colorado courtrooms.

But attorney Chris Forsyth acknowledges that his effort to change how judges are elected and disciplined could be a long shot this year.

“We need lightning to strike,” he said.

Forsyth, an attorney of 20 years, is behind the Clean up the Courts effort, a pair of would-be constitutional amendments that seek to restructure parts of the judicial system.

The Two-Thirds Majority Amendment would raise the number of “yes” votes judges need for retention to a two-thirds majority. Right now, judges retain their bench seats by collecting a simple majority in uncontested races.

“They’re a completely different animal than a normal election because they don’t have an opponent,” Forsyth said. “In a regular election, the opponents point out each other’s flaws, but we don’t have something like that here.”

Forsyth said that the simple majority retention system can lead to a process by which bad judges continue to hold on to their bench seats, he said.

“Too much job security is not a good thing,” he said.

Forsyth also seeks to change how judges are disciplined, through the Honest Judge Amendment.

That effort would transfer judges’ disciplinary cases to the Independent Ethics Commission, an agency that is already set up to look into complaints filed against elected officials.

Right now, disciplinary cases are taken up by the Commission on Judicial Discipline. Forsyth said there is a conflict of interest in allowing a commission that reports to the Supreme Court to discipline judges.

Forsyth said the commission has dismissed 97 percent of discipline cases against judges over the last 10 years and the vast majority of those cases were dismissed without ever really being looked into.

“Our discipline commission isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” Forsyth said. “Right now, whether people have a good judge is the luck of the draw. And it shouldn’t be that way.”

But there is opposition to Forsyth’s efforts. The Colorado Bar Association is against the initiatives, claiming that the amendments would have an adverse impact on the judicial system.

State Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is also opposed to Forsyth’s efforts.

“These initiatives are seeking to solve a problem that doesn’t seem to exist,” Kagan said. “It’s misguided. These initiatives suggest that if a judge is more accountable to the popular mood, they will be better judges. That’s not true.”

Kagan said that judges shouldn’t feel pressured into ruling on cases out of fear that he or she might lose his seat because of them.

“Any judicial decision is going to leave somebody angry,” Kagan said. “But if judges are looking over their shoulders every time they do their job, that’s not a good thing.”

Forsyth has until Aug. 4 to submit more than 86,000 valid petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office, in order for the initiatives to make it on to the November ballot.

Forsyth acknowledges that he has a tall order ahead of him, so he has created a novel way of collecting signatures through his “change your fate with up to eight” method. The method asks supporters to print petitions from his Clean up the Courts website and collect eight signatures on their own.

“It’s all about integrity, that’s what this is all about,” Forsyth said. “We’ve just got to stop the madness and bring back accountability.”