Accountability, Transparency apply to the Colorado Supreme Court, too

Clear The Bench Colorado is always willing to give credit where credit is due – even if the credit was earned grudgingly and under pressure.

Accordingly, we commend the Denver Post for publishing (albeit weeks after submission and in greatly abbreviated form) our article in today’s (Friday) newspaper in response to a guest commentary published June 11 (“Criticism of retiring Judge (sic) Mullarkey unfair”) which attacked efforts (unnamed, but clearly implied, meaning Clear The Bench Colorado) to provide Colorado voters with substantive information and objective reviews of judicial performance in order to hold the incumbent officeholders on the Colorado Supreme Court accountable to the law and to the citizens of our state.

The Denver Post version of the article (heavily edited for space) – appeared in today’s (Friday) paper under the title “Demand accountability from judges, too” after a couple of weeks delay (and possibly precipitated into print- say that three times, fast) by Wednesday’s Face The State article (”Supreme Court’s temporary digs draw a dart from court critics“) highlighting the Post’s lack of coverage of any criticism of the Colorado Supreme Court since they took up offices in the Denver Newspaper Agency building (worth $1.6 million annually to the Post publisher’s bottom line).  The original version (taking up precisely 500 words – coincidentally the exact same as the limit for the judicial performance review  “narratives” published in the “Blue Book”) appears below.  Compare and contrast the coverage!

Accountability, Transparency apply to Courts, too

“Move along, people. Nothing to see here.” (Officer Barbrady, South Park)

The defenders of the status quo are nothing if not predictable.

Last Friday’s guest commentary by career politician Susan Thornton attempted to characterize any critique of incumbent state Supreme Court justices as “attacks” and “over-the-top charges.”

Her selective use of incendiary and emotional language to characterize any critique of the performance of the state Supreme Court justices subject to a vote in the upcoming elections as “attacks” seeks to deny the right of individual citizens or independent groups to express their views under the First Amendment to hold government officials – our judicial branch – accountable to the people in an open, transparent manner.

Her alternative?  The closed-door, non-transparent, unaccountable, political insider-dominated process that is the Judicial Performance Review Commission “evaluation” of judicial branch officeholders:

“[V]oters in Colorado learn about individual judges’ records from nonpartisan citizen panels that evaluate the judges and make recommendations about whether they should be retained.”

Chief Justice Mullarkey herself – who began making public appearances shortly after the judicial accountability organization Clear The Bench Colorado was formed – made the same argument:

“The judicial performance review commission reports tell you everything you need to know.”

But do they?

The reports issued on each judicial officeholder by the commissions (and appearing in the “Blue Book”) take the form of a “narrative” which by rule “shall consist of 5 short paragraphs totaling not more than 500 words” – only one of which (paragraph 4) may even address “description of the performance of the justice or judge” at all!  The remaining paragraphs (the bulk of the “evaluation”) list the commission recommendation, including vote (1); describe “biographical data” (2); list “previous employment” (3); and conclude with a catch-all mostly devoted to survey statistics (5).

The narratives are heavily biased towards retention of incumbents; rules restrict the recommendations based on results of questionnaires distributed to a select group (predominantly other judges, attorneys, and a very limited number of people actually appearing before the highest court).  Also, the incumbents under “evaluation” have the opportunity to respond to the draft narrative and request changes prior to publication (wouldn’t you like the chance to re-write your own job review?)

What does eventually appear in the “Blue Book” is so watered down and lacking in substance that it’s almost impossible to make any distinction between ‘excellent’ and ‘poor’ judicial performance.  In fact, if anyone thinks that these reviews are helpful in evaluating appellate court judges and justices, please let me know – and explain how they helped you “judge the judges.”

Thornton’s message to the voters was: “trust me – trust us, the elite political insiders – not your lying eyes.  We know better – pay no attention to the man behind (actually, lifting) the curtain.”

The CTBC message: get informed, from a variety of sources; then assume your responsibility as citizens.

“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” – Abraham Lincoln

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