The number of civil cases filed in federal court in Colorado rose by 39% between 2000 and 2019, and the administrative body for the judiciary has called for two additional judges to handle the workload in the state. However, the rate of cases that make it to trial has slowly dropped over the past two decades, now comprising less than 1% of civil cases annually.
Data released by the Administrative Office for the U.S. Courts earlier this month showed that nationwide, 91% of civil filings from prisoners were pro se, meaning the filers represented themselves in court. By contrast, only 11% of all other types of civil cases saw parties representing themselves pro se.
In Colorado, the largest category of civil filings as of 2019 were prisoner petitions, which include challenges to the constitutionality of their sentences, allegations of rights violations or claims of unlawful conditions of imprisonment. The second largest category in Colorado was contract disputes, which more than doubled over two decades, with 804 filings in 2019.
“As society becomes more complex and more and more companies require customers and employees to sign adhesion [or boilerplate] contracts to do basic transactions, it’s not surprising there are more breach of contract cases,” said Jason Wesoky, an attorney with Darling Milligan PC who speculated about the cause of the increase. “Further, because insurance companies seem to be on a mission to hoard profits at the expense of paying legitimate claims, I’d venture to guess a decent chunk of those contract cases are breach of insurance contract cases.”
The third largest category of cases was civil rights, of which there were 694 filed in 2019. The number was higher than the 20-year average of 532 cases annually, but slightly less than the 710 in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration.
“Civil rights violations are up, in my opinion, because of the advent of bystander video and body cameras on the police,” said David Lane, a partner at Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP. “Cases we would have declined prior to technological innovation are now provable.”
Even as the civil caseload has ticked up — and reached its highest level ever since the U.S. District Court for Colorado began tracking data in 2002 — fewer and fewer cases have resulted in a jury trial. In the first year of recordkeeping, there were 2,464 cases filed and 52 trials, a rate of 2.1%.
But by 2019, there were 3,733 filings and 31 trials, a rate of just 0.83%. By contrast, according to a report from U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty, the rate of felony jury trials more than doubled between 2014 and 2019.
Jeffrey Colwell, the clerk of the district court, said the busier judges become, the more likely it will affect civil cases, given that there is no constitutional guarantee to a speedy civil trial like that which criminal defendants enjoy. Colwell indicated that in 2020, the court began seeing an influx of prisoner petitions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including requests for compassionate release.
While he said it was the policy of the district’s judges to not comment, Colwell said Colorado has been at the point of needing to add more judges for more than a decade.
“There’s nothing that mandates it, but Congress creates judgeships,” he said. “The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, every other year they look at our caseload and every district across the country. They weight certain types of cases more than others, and Colorado is almost always in the top 10 or 15 in the country as to the highest weighted caseload per judge.”
The recommendation as of March 2019 has been that Colorado needs two more district court judges, with a total of 73 new judges recommended nationwide. The state has had seven judges since the mid 1980s.
In July 2019, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and then-U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner introduced a bill to increase Colorado’s district court bench to nine members. The bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. A spokesperson for Bennet did not respond to an inquiry about the bill’s fate.
On Wednesday, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee will hold a hearing on the need for new federal trial judge positions.
“Pro se cases require extra court resources for processing,” the courts’ administrative office explained in its data release. “Courts are allocated pro se law clerk positions to screen and process pro se cases and courts generally provide resources and instructions designed specifically to assist pro se filers.”
Colorado saw a 36% increase in filings from parties representing themselves since 2000, and those cases represent just under one-third of all civil filings. In conjunction with the Colorado Bar Association, Colorado’s district court approved a pro se pilot clinic in 2018, which the chief judge made permanent a year later.
Currently, the Judicial Conference of the United States has deemed Colorado’s district court as being in a “judicial emergency” due to the high number of filings per judge. In March 2019, Marcia S. Krieger became a senior judge, which is a form of retirement that has allowed her to continue handling cases while also creating a vacancy. The seat remains unfilled.
This month, Colorado’s two U.S. senators, Bennet and John Hickenlooper, recommended the White House nominate Regina M. Rodriguez to the position. The Biden administration has yet to act on the recommendation.
Wesoky agreed with the need for additional federal judges in Colorado.
“I think our state courts do an excellent job of handling a large workload and getting cases to trial in 12-18 months from filing, which is two times to three times faster than the federal courts,” he said. “The federal district court and appellate benches need more judges as well as often the time from filing to decision is too long, and, as the legal maxim goes, justice delayed is justice denied.”