Judiciary of Colorado
The Judiciary of Colorado is defined by Article VI of the Colorado Constitution as well as the law of Colorado. The various courts include the Colorado Supreme Court, Colorado Court of Appeals, Colorado district courts (for each of the 22 judicial districts), Colorado county courts (for each of Colorado's 64 counties), Colorado water courts, and municipal courts. The administration of the state judicial system is the responsibility of the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court as its executive head, and is assisted by several other commissions. In Denver, the county and municipal courts are integrated and administratively separate from the state court system.
Colorado courts include the:
- Colorado Supreme Court,
- Colorado Court of Appeals,
- Colorado district courts,
- Colorado county courts,
- Colorado water courts,
- and municipal courts.
All of the courts above, other than municipal courts and Denver's county court, are part of the state court system. In Denver, county courts and municipal courts are integrated and are not part of the state court system for administrative purposes, and the Denver Probate Court and the Denver Juvenile Court have jurisdiction over probate and juvenile matters, respectively. Outside Denver, these matters are within the jurisdiction of the district courts.
Court of Appeals
The Colorado Court of Appeals is the state intermediate appellate court. It has jurisdiction primarily over final judgments of district courts acting as trial courts, and of approximately 33 kinds of administrative agency or board determinations. It is bypassed in the case of death penalty appeals, cases in which a lower court has declared a law or ordinance to be unconstitutional, appeals from Public Utilities Commission decisions, certain appeals related to the initiative process, appeals from water courts, interlocutory relief, and the further appeal of cases already appealed from a county or municipal court to a district court judge, all of which are appealed directly to the Colorado Supreme Court. Unlike the other state courts, this court is a creature of statute and not mandated by the state constitution. There is a single geographical division of the Colorado Court of Appeals co-located in the same court house with the Colorado Supreme Court in Denver that handles all intermediate appellate court cases statewide. The Colorado Court of Appeals does not have any internal subject-matter divisions. It hears cases in panels of three judges, but it does not have "en banc" review of panel decisions as the federal United States courts of appeals do.
The Colorado district courts are the state trial courts of general jurisdiction. There are 22 judicial districts in the state, which include one or more of Colorado's 64 counties. They have original jurisdiction in civil cases with any amount in controversy; felony criminal cases, domestic relations, family law, and cases involving minors cases (including adoption, dependency, juvenile delinquency, and paternity actions), probate, and mental health cases. Court filings in district court generally indicate the county within the district in which the action is filed and the district court generally conducts proceedings in that action in that county.
Colorado county courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. There is one county court in each of the 64 counties, including the consolidated city-counties of Denver and Broomfield. They hear misdemeanor cases, preliminary hearings in felony cases, evictions, civil cases not involving ownership of real property with an amount in controversy up to $15,000, and several other narrowly defined types of cases such as name changes and temporary restraining orders. There is one county court in each of Colorado's counties.
In some municipalities of Colorado there are municipal courts, which are not part of the state court system. Municipal court jurisdiction is limited to municipal ordinance cases, including traffic violations imposed under municipal ordinances rather than state statutes, which have maximum penalties similar to those of state law petty offenses. These courts have no statutory jurisdiction over other classes of cases, although municipal courts do have inherent procedural powers associated with their status as a court, such as contempt of court powers and powers related to the calling and compensation of jurors. Some municipal courts are courts of record which can impose greater sanctions for ordinance violations and are subject to appellate review in a manner similar to state courts. Other municipal courts are courts not of record, which can impose only less severe sanctions for ordinance violations, whose decisions are appealed through trials de novo in the appellate court. A small number of municipal courts in Colorado have been granted civil jurisdiction in certain ordinance cases, such as cases involving land use, under municipal home rule powers, in addition to quasi-criminal jurisdiction.
The state's seven Colorado water courts have exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over adjudications of water rights. Established in 1969, there are seven water courts in each of Colorado's seven major river basins: South Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande, Gunnison, Colorado, White, and San Juan. Water courts are presided over by district court judges who have simultaneously been given responsibility for water court cases in each of the state's seven drainage basins. The water courts are divisions of the district courts in that basin and use the district court's accessories, and water judges are district court judges appointed by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Colorado's state government also has a number of executive branch administrative law courts and independent tribunals outside the judicial branch. Some of the most notable of these are the administrative law judges handling election law violations in the Colorado Secretary of State's office, the Public Utilities Commission when it acts in a quasi-judicial manner, unemployment hearing officers, administrative law judges handling motor vehicle license revocations, quasi-judicial municipal land use boards, professional regulatory boards, and an Independent Ethics Commission.
The judicial branch is headed by the Colorado Supreme Court, the state supreme court. The Colorado Supreme Court selects the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court from its own membership who is the executive head of the judicial system. In addition to its role as the state's highest appellate court, the Colorado Supreme Court supervises the state court system and the state's lawyers.
The Integrated Colorado Courts E-Filing System (ICCES) is the electronic court filing system. There is no official reporter. The Colorado Reporter (a Colorado-specific version of the Pacific Reporter) is an unofficial reporter for appellate decisions from 1883. Decisions of the Colorado Supreme Court were published in the official Colorado Reports from 1864 to 1980, and decisions of the Court of Appeals were published in the official Colorado Court of Appeals Reports from 1891 to 1980.
When vacancies occurs on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, district court, or county court, a judicial nominating commission recommends to the governor three (for appellate courts) and two or three (for trial courts) qualified candidates to fill the vacancy. The governor appoint a judge from the commission's list. All judges are subject to retention elections. The appointment and retention of municipal court judges is governed by municipal ordinance. All or almost all municipal judges are appointed. Denver County Court judges are appointed by the mayor from choices presented by a blue ribbon merit selection committee, and subject to retention elections in the same manner as state court system county court judges.
The Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission recommends candidates to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. For the district courts and county courts, a judicial district nominating commission in each of the 22 judicial districts recommends candidates to the Governor of Colorado for consideration and appointment. The Denver County Court Judicial Nomination Commission recommends candidates to the Mayor of Denver to fill vacancies on the Denver County Court.
Appellate judges, district court judges, Denver Probate Court judges, juvenile court judges and county court judges in larger counties are required to be lawyers. Trial courts also often have magistrates with many judicial powers appointed by the court who must also be lawyers. County court judges in smaller counties are not required to be lawyers, but currently there are no more than four non-lawyer state judges in Colorado, all of whom are part-time, and at least three of whom are college educated. Preference in hiring municipal judges must be given to lawyers. Municipal judges in courts of record must be lawyers, while municipal judges in courts not of record need not be lawyers. In practice, all of the larger municipalities in Colorado have municipal courts of record with judges who are lawyers. Many municipal judges who are lawyers serve on multiple municipal courts and/or are part-time county court judges.
In Colorado, judges can be removed by legislative impeachment, by the voters in a retention election, or for cause by the Colorado Supreme Court on the advice of the Colorado Judicial Conduct Commission. After two years in office, and then after the expiration of each full term in office, judges are subject to retention elections in which voters can choose to retain or not retain a judge. The vast majority (about 99 percent) of judges are retained by voters. State committees make recommendations to voters on the retention of judges distributed in booklet form with partial justifications prior to each judicial retention election. Voters have never voted not to retain an appellate judge in the forty years that the system has been in place. Voters tend to not retain judges only when there is a well-publicized scandal and usually also a recommendation from a state committee that a judge not be retained. Colorado judges are not subject to recall elections.
Judges may also be impeached by the legislature (a very rare occurrence) and are monitored by a judicial discipline commission. Many complaints about judges found by the judicial discipline commission to warrant further investigation are resolved when the judge involved retires, rendering the investigation moot. Removal from office is mandatory in the case of felonies and "crimes of moral turpitude" of which a judge is convicted. The mandatory retirement age for judges in Colorado is seventy-two years of age. The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline investigates allegations that a judge is not properly performing his or her official duties because of willful misconduct, ethical violations, or a permanent disabling health condition. The Commission may take various actions to remedy improper conduct including simply meeting with the judge, privately or publicly reprimanding the judge, or recommending that the Supreme Court remove a judge from office. In an appropriate case, the Commission also may place a judge on disability retirement. The Denver County Court Judicial Discipline Commission considers complaints regarding the conduct of Denver County Court judges.
Most crimes in Colorado are prosecuted by a district attorney. One district attorney is elected for each of the state's 22 judicial districts in a partisan election. The state attorney general also has power to prosecute certain crimes. In rare circumstances a special prosecutor may be appointed to prosecute a crime on a case by case basis. Municipal ordinance violations are prosecuted by city attorneys.
With certain exceptions, appeals of right from districts courts, the Denver Probate Court and the Denver Juvenile Court are to the Colorado Court of Appeals. There are certain exceptions, in which an appeal of right lies directly to the Colorado Supreme Court. These include capital punishment cases, cases where a law is found to be unconstitutional by a district court, water court cases and discretionary review following county or municipal court appeals of right. The Colorado Court of Appeals also has jurisdiction over appeals directly from certain state administrative bodies.
Most appeals from county courts, municipal courts and quasi-judicial local decision making bodies are made to a district court. All appeals other than appeals of right, including most appeals prior to a final judgment in civil cases, are to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Supervision of convicted criminals on probation is a responsibility of the judicial branch. Jails for individuals awaiting conviction or sentencing, convicted of misdemeanors, petty offenses or ordinance violations, and for convicted felons awaiting transfers to state prison, are operated by county sheriffs. Prisons for adults and supervision of individuals on parole is the responsibility of the state government through the state department of corrections. Incarceration of juvenile and certain mentally ill offenders are also the responsibility of the state government.
Colorado once had superior courts but they were merged into the district courts effective November 14, 1986. References to "small claims court" in Colorado are to a subdivision of county court.
- Colorado Revised Statutes Section 13-4-102(2).
- Colorado Revised Statutes Section 13-4-102(1).
- Colorado Revised Statutes, Sections 13-10-104 and 13-10-113.
- Hylton v. City of Colo. Springs, 32 Colo. App. 9, 505 P.2d 26 (1973)
- See, e.g., Thrap v. People, 192 Colo. 341, 558 P.2d 576 (1977)
- Colorado Constitution, Article XXIX, Section 5.
- Article VI § 5(2) of the Colorado Constitution
- Oesterle, Dale A.; Collins, Richard B. (2002). The Colorado State Constitution: A Reference Guide. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 27. ISBN 0-313-30849-7. LCCN 2001045241.
- Larsen, Sonja; Bourdeau, John (1997). Legal Research for Beginners. Barron's Educational Series. p. 268. ISBN 0-8120-9768-8. LCCN 96-39398.
- Denver Charter § 4.1.4
- "Denver County Court Judicial Nomination Commission". Government of Denver. Retrieved 15 October 2013.
- Colorado Constitution, Section 23(2).
- Colorado Constitution, Article VI, Section 23(1).
- Colo. Public Law 1985, page 572
- Official website
- Integrated Colorado Courts E-Filing System (subscription required)
- CoCourts.com (subscription required)