Colorado should increase racial diversity on its citizen commissions that select and oversee members of the judiciary, a state district court judge believes.
“I can tell you that they are nice folks, but they are all-white commissions, both the judicial nominating commission and the performance commission. There are no minorities in this district,” said Judge Juan G. Villaseñor, who was appointed in 2018. “Only you have the power to change that.”
Villaseñor spoke virtually on Sunday with Diverse Fort Collins, a volunteer-run project that hosts discussions and workshops on the theme of inclusion. He referenced the 10-member judicial performance commission in his district that makes recommendations to voters about whether to retain judges, and also the seven-member judicial nominating commission that screens applicants for judgeships. Similar panels exist for all 22 judicial districts and statewide.
“There is a dearth of diversity on the bench. We have about twenty-something judges who are Latino, about eight judges who are Black and we have a couple of Asian judges,” said Villaseñor, who immigrated from Mexico when he was a child and came to Fort Collins to work in 2012. “From my perspective, one of the ways to increase diversity on the bench is to likewise increase diversity” on the commissions.
A recent analysis from The Denver Post found that the racial makeup of the judiciary, prosecutors and public defenders skewed overwhelmingly white. The paper found five Black and 15 Latino district court judges out of 196 total, with approximately 10% of the county court judges in those demographics. The process for selecting finalists for judicial offices is confidential and not open to public scrutiny.
Katherine Valdez, founder of Diverse Fort Collins, said that unconscious bias exists in the criminal justice system, and there is a range of solutions available in addition to more diverse representation on commissions.
“We can start by encouraging more young people of diverse cultures, identities and abilities to pursue law careers; treating jury duty as an opportunity to learn about the judicial system and serve our communities instead of an inconvenience; [and] advocating for unconscious bias training for attorneys, judges and others in the court system,” she said after the virtual event.
Villaseñor also spoke about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Eighth Judicial District, which includes Larimer and Jackson counties. He said he forcefully advocated for a waiver early in the pandemic to resume jury trials, which are now limited to one felony and one misdemeanor trial per week.
It is “a Kabuki dance, a very delicate dance" to maintain health protocols, he said, adding that the most complex part is checking in potential jurors. While Villaseñor remembered being worried about a backlog in the justice system in the absence of jury trials, he related that the number of plea bargains reached has “massaged” the system and ameliorated the buildup.
Another consequential decision was granting bonds to individuals in jail, which he believed has worked out well.
“That's what kept me up at night, to be honest. There could be an outbreak in our detention center here,” Villaseñor. “It’s a nightmare. You think we're in bad shape now? Boy, it would have been horrible.”