Some say Colorado’s appellate judges are entrenched activists, writing laws from the bench to further a partisan agenda. Others, that they’re experienced decision-makers.
This collision of philosophies has put on today’s ballot Amendment 40, which would force appellate judges out of office after 10 years. Currently, they may serve an unlimited number of eight-year terms.
Ellen Brilliant, manager for the Protect Colorado Courts campaign against the amendment, says the failure of the amendment to address the large number of vacant spots on appellate court benches in 2009 is very alarming.
The passing of Amendment 40 would remove five of the seven judges on the Colorado Supreme Court and seven of the 19 judges in the Appellate Courts, leaving the newly elected governor in 2009 to appoint a total of 12 judges.
“With so many judges being forced off the bench all at once Coloradans can expect a serious backlog in cases that are critically important to the state, such as child welfare matters, domestic disputes, employment issues, property rights as well as water issues,” Brilliant said.
The Limit the Judges campaign in support of the legislation believes the amendment resists partisanship by increasing the turnover rate, giving judges less time to further a partisan agenda and “write laws from the bench.”
“Amendment 40 responds to a pattern of judges trying to rewrite the law instead of interpret it,” said John Andrews, chairman of Limit the Judges and former head of the Colorado Senate. “By assuring rotation in office, Amendment 40 would be a check against judicial activism.”
Political science professor John Straayer thinks that the combination of the removal of five Supreme Court justices, the loss of experienced judges and the dissuasion of qualified legal heads to serve is a move toward disaster.
“I view this as just another attack on our system by political hobbyists who make careers out of trying to disable our government,” Straayer said.
As law stands now, newly appointed judges serve a two-year provisional term, after which they must survive a retention election.
In a retention election, a state commission on judicial performance reviews the judge and recommends to voters whether to retain the judge or not. Voters ultimately decide whether to keep a judge or to send him or her packing.
If voters decide to retain a judge, that judge then serves a term of eight years before going up for another retention election. Currently, the number of eight-year terms a judge can serve is unlimited, but appellate judges must retire at age 72.
Amendment 40, if passed, stipulates that judges would be up for a retention election four years after their two-year provisional period, and that a judge can serve no longer than 10 years total – the two-year provisional term in addition to two four-year terms, if voters decide to retain judges for that long.
Under Amendment 40, any judges who have already served 10 years on the bench before the 2008 elections would be unable to continue serving and all others would be up for a retention election.
Although most CSU students may not feel the direct effect of the proposed amendment, their votes still make a difference.
“Read the initiatives and get educated so that as an individual voter you know what you’re voting for or against,” Brilliant recommended to students.
“Many elections, including the presidency in 1960 or 2000, have been determined by a mere handful of votes,” said Andrews. “Even more than hoping we get your vote for Amendment 40, I just hope that you do exercise your vote.”
Staff writer Callie Moench can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.