Nathan Coats to be Colorado's next chief justice

Nathan B. Coats, the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, will retire in January and the court will alter its procedure for filling the state’s top judgeship, the court announced on Wednesday.

Coats will turn 72 in January, which is the mandatory retirement age for judges. Republican Gov. Bill Owens appointed him to the court in 2000, and Coats succeeded Nancy E. Rice as the chief justice in mid-2018. Prior to his appointment, he worked in the state attorney general’s office and for the Second Judicial District in Denver.

Upon Coats’ retirement, Justice Brian D. Boatright will take over the position. However, the court also voted to implement a rotational system of shortened terms, with Justice Monica M. Márquez to succeed Boatright. A spokesperson for the court said described the change as "simply a consensus decision," but that the justices have yet to determine the length of the chief justice term.

“I’m excited about it,” said Christopher M. Jackson, an attorney with Holland & Hart. “I think we’ll get the best of both worlds: continuity in leadership (because a clear rotation means everyone can prepare for a change in the position well in advance) coupled with diverse perspectives in the chief’s role (because no justice will serve in that office for more than a few years).”

According to Gavel to Gavel, a judicial-oriented news service, 22 states, including Colorado, allow members of their highest court to select the chief justice as of 2015. Later that year, Wisconsin voters approved a constitutional amendment implementing this selection method, which resulted in the court's conservative majority removing the long-serving, more liberal chief justice.

Seven states hold elections specifically for the positions, and in 12 the governor appoints the chief. After Wisconsin's change, six states determine the occupant of the seat through a rotational seniority system. In South Carolina, the legislature selects the chief justice and the judicial nominating commission in Indiana chooses that state's chief. 

Boatright joined the court in 2011, and will be the state's 47th chief justice since statehood. Márquez, appointed in 2010, is the first Latina and first openly gay justice.

"As chief justice, I plan to focus my energy on supporting our trial courts and probation departments as they continue to adapt to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and safely conduct the important work of the branch," said Boatright.

The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committe, Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, commended Coats on his retirement and said he was "thrilled" that Boatright would become the next chief. The two men were part of a 2018 task force spearheaded by the Council of State Governments on juvenile justice. That led to Senate Bill 108, a comprehensive reform of the state's juvenile justice system that allowed the use of restorative, versus punitive, justice in youth corrections.

The Supreme Court will formally announce a vacancy on the seven-member court later this year. The process for selecting new judges and justices involves a citizen-led nominating commission screening applicants and forwarding three names to the governor. This will be Gov. Jared Polis’s first Supreme Court vacancy to fill, after which all justices will have been appointees of Democratic governors.

Denver County Court Judge Gary M. Jackson, who has focused on increasing diversity in Colorado's judicial branch, stressed that "there has not been an African-American justice in more than 20 years on the Colorado Supreme Court," which he termed a "gavel gap" between the demographics of judges and the state as a whole. Currently, two members of the Supreme Court are Hispanic and five are white.

The chief justice heads the state’s judicial branch, from the Supreme Court down to district and county courts. There are just under 4,000 employees and 410 judicial officers. In the last fiscal year, Colorado’s courts heard 641,000 cases.

Colorado Politics reporter Marianne Goodland contributed to this article.

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