In a stunning order the state Supreme Court released on Friday, the justices accepted the resignation of Arapahoe County District Court Judge Natalie T. Chase for racist behavior, workplace misconduct and name-calling toward a fellow judge.
"You acknowledge that your use of the N-word does not promote public confidence in the judiciary and creates the appearance of impropriety," the Court wrote to Chase in an unsigned decision. "Although not directed at any person, saying the N-word has a significant negative effect on the public’s confidence in integrity of and respect for the judiciary."
Chase is a 2014 appointee of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper. She previously was a criminal defense, domestic relations and estate planning attorney. As a judge in the 18th Judicial District of Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, she handles juvenile cases.
Both Chase and the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline agreed that in early 2020, Chase and two court employees — one of whom was Black — drove to Pueblo for a work event. Chase asked the Black employee "why Black people can use the N-word but not white people, and whether it was different if the N-word is said with an 'er' or an 'a' at the end of the word," according to the commission's' findings.
Chase used the N-word during the conversation, which the Black employee called "a stab through my heart each time.”
On a separate occasion, Chase, sitting on the bench in the presence of two Black court employees, mentioned she would boycott the Super Bowl because some professional football players chose to kneel during the National Anthem to protest police killings of Black people. In yet another instance in her courtroom last year, Chase told two Black employees after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis "that she believes all lives matter."
Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, deemed such conduct disqualifying for a judicial officer. "If Judge Chase truly understood what the N-word meant to our ancestors, she would NEVER ask the question about the N-word or use it," Fields said.
Chase maintained her intentions were not racist, but nonetheless admitted to violating the rule requiring judges to act in way that promotes public confidence in the judiciary. She also acknowledged her behavior "undermined confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary by expressing [her] views about criminal justice, police brutality, race and racial bias, specifically while wearing [her] robe in court staff work areas and from the bench."
The Supreme Court's decision about Chase came one day after the justices approved mandatory equity, diversity and inclusivity training for attorneys, following arguments that unprofessional conduct in the legal profession disproportionately targets lawyers of color and women. It also comes nearly a year after the Supreme Court's ethics advisory board warned judges, in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, that they should "not make political or divisive statements, not only because of the appearance of impropriety, but because such matters may come before them."
"The judicial system must be free of ignorant biases and racist behavior from the top to the bottom, regardless of whether they are wearing a badge or a robe," said former Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, on Friday. "While these incidents are unacceptable in any part of our state, it is extremely concerning to take place in one of Colorado's most diverse counties. It makes me wonder if her beliefs have more harshly cost individuals of color [who were] unfortunate to sit before her."
Such questions may not be purely hypothetical. Last week, the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for a Black defendant in a case Chase handled. During jury selection, Chase decided the prosecution's dismissal of at least two jurors of color did not violate established law against race-based excusals. A majority of the appellate panel disagreed, and also found Chase inappropriately weighed in with her own explanation for why the dismissals were not racially-motivated.
Among the non-racial incidents, Chase also had her employees perform research on issues that were not work-related, asked her clerk to edit her personal emails, and discussed personal matters with employees in a way that was "not dignified or courteous."
Finally, she used a profane name to refer to a colleague after a meeting.
Although the judicial discipline commission agreed to a public censure as a consequence, Chase also decided to resign. Her resignation is effective 45 days from April 16.
The last censure the Court delivered to a judge was in December, against a former Weld County judge who pleaded guilty for obstructing a federal drug investigation.