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“Alarming” cover-up allegation brings fresh scrutiny to Colorado’s largely secret judicial discipline – The Denver Post

Some Colorado lawmakers are considering pushing for changes to the state’s largely secret process for disciplining judges in light of a two-page memo released by the Colorado Supreme Court that details alleged judicial misconduct.

The memo became public Monday night amid allegations by former State Court Administrator Christopher Ryan that now-retired Chief Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats approved a deal to give a $2.5 million contract to a former top administrator in order to keep the misconduct detailed in the memo secret.

The document alleges a judge sent a pornographic email via his work account, faced no discipline and then was promoted. It says another judge rubbed his “hairy chest” on a female employee’s back, and that an anonymous allegation of sexual harassment against Coats was destroyed. The memo includes numerous other allegations about sexism and problems throughout the state judicial department.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, on Tuesday called the memo and the subsequent alleged cover-up at the highest levels of the judicial department “concerning and alarming,” and said legislators are considering a variety of responses to ensure “accountability, transparency and fairness,” including holding hearings or forming committees to examine the situation.

“In conversations with my colleagues, who are all expressing deep concern, we are looking to have this resolved sooner rather than later,” he said. “I am not going to be stonewalled or delayed in this. This is alarming.”

Colorado’s Constitution shields judges from public scrutiny in the vast majority of discipline cases, offering judges accused of wrongdoing more privacy than in 35 other states, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Only four Colorado judges in the last decade have been publicly disciplined. Fifty-one were disciplined secretly between 2010 and 2019 for misconduct that ranged from failing to issue timely rulings to having a sexual relationship with a member of court staff.

“I don’t understand it,” Garcia said. “In my world, as an elected official, we are held accountable… As you look at these judges functioning in a high capacity in which they are giving a sentence to someone and judging, but their own integrity, their own house is not in order? To me that is just unbecoming.”

He added that the judicial department’s response — officials initially refused to release the memo to The Denver Post — raises concern as well.

“If you didn’t have these whistleblowers and the commitment of the press to shine a light on this, where might this have landed?” he said.

Chris Forsyth, executive director of The Judicial Integrity Project who has been advocating for a more transparent discipline for judges in Colorado for years, said a public discipline process would have prevented this situation.

“It’s the cover-up of this that led to the blackmail and potential bribery, and 34 states have public discipline proceedings for a reason,” he said, adding that legislators have “turned a deaf ear” to past efforts to reform the system.

“The current scandal is a little mind-boggling because it involves the chief justice, the leader of the judicial branch,” Forsyth said. “It’s so indicative of the culture and environment in the entire judicial branch — it’s just earthshaking that this is the leader, the top.”

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