Scales of Justice

Three vacancies on the Denver County Court are expected to be filled by Jan. 16. Denver is the only place in Colorado where judges are appointed by the mayor rather than the governor. 

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is considering seven nominees for three spots on the Denver County Court, soon to be comprised of 18 judges, all of whom are mayoral appointees.

If selected, two of the nominees will take the places of Judge Johnny Barajas — who last week overturned Denver’s urban camping ban — and Judge Brian Campbell, who has served on the court since 1980. Respectively, the two judges will retire on Jan. 31 and March 10.

The third nominee will fill the spot of a newly created judgeship, the result of a city ordinance change recently approved by Denver City CouncilThe extra seat, bringing the judicial body up from 17 to 18 judges, is intended to help with the court’s caseload, which has experienced a “significant increase” over the past three decades. 

Denver City Attorney’s Office appeals court ruling that deems urban camping ban unconstitutional
Denver's controversial urban camping ban ruled unconstitutional

By adding a judge, the court will be able to process cases timelier and be “more responsive and efficient,” said Theresa Spahn, the presiding judge of the Denver County Court, during a City Council governance committee meeting on Oct. 22 when the amendment was first proposed.

Up for the mayor’s consideration are attorneys Arnie Beckman, a lawyer with the Office of the State Public Defender; David Blackett, a judge with the 17th Judicial District; Andrew Luxen, chief deputy district attorney at the Denver District Attorney’s Office; Michelle Martinez, also a judge with the 17th Judicial District; Richard Ott, a defense attorney who runs his own law firm; Tanja Wheeler, first assistant attorney general at the Colorado Attorney General's Office; and James Zobel, a magistrate of the Denver County Court.

Hancock will interview the seven candidates and make his picks by Jan. 16. He is the only mayor anywhere in the state with this kind of power. Judges everywhere else in Colorado are chosen by the governor.

Nominees were vetted and advanced by the Judicial Nomination Commission, whose members are also appointed by the mayor — as written in Denver’s city charter — and serve four-year terms. The body is composed of three people who are attorneys and four who are not, along with an ex-officio member (currently Spahn) in a nonvoting advisory capacity.

No more than four members shall belong to same policy party, nor can any commissioners hold an official position in a political organization or be related by blood or marriage to any other member.

The application process officially began on Nov. 6, and those interested had less than two weeks to throw their hat in the ring. To qualify, applicants had to be a licensed attorney in Colorado and have a minimum of five years’ experience practicing law.

One question on the six-page application read, “Why do you want to be a judge?” The candidates had a one-page limit for their answer.

Interviews with the commissioners took place over two days in mid-December, part of the confidential process. After the JNC transmitted the names, Hancock was given 15 days to make his decision.

The Denver County Court is a trial court in the state’s 2nd Judicial District. It hears civil and criminal cases, as well as parking, traffic, juvenile and small claims matters.

The number of county court judges has remained at 17 since 1986, yet its caseload has increased substantially due to Senate Bill 18-056, which increases the civil threshold from $15,000 to $25,000 and House Bill 19-1263, which downgrades some drug possessions from a felony to a misdemeanor.

These two bills, according to city documents, will result in the Denver County Court inheriting 3,000 cases, or about a quarter of the Denver District Court’s docket.

Most of these cases, according to Spahn, are felonies for the possession of meth or heroin. Last year, she said, nearly 60% of cases funneled through the Denver District Attorney’s Office involved meth users; another 27% were for heroin possession.

Between 2013 and 2018, the number of people arrested for drug possession increased by 58%, from about 13,000 to more than 20,600, according to an October report by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

“This is a population with serious addiction issues,” Spahn said, stressing the importance of an additional judge who can help “manage this population in a positive way.”

The goal, with the help of an extra pair of hands, is to be able to carry out more upfront screenings to ultimately to divert people who have a serious addiction from the criminal justice system and into treatment, a practice supported by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, as expressed during the October council committee meeting.

Depending on the impact the 18th judge will make in 2020, Spahn said, the court may consider adding another seat in 2021 and repeating the process over again.

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