Colorado Justice Center a Monument to Imperial, Unaccountable Colorado Judiciary

Colorado Justice Center a Monument to Imperial, Unaccountable Colorado Judiciary was originally published (with minor edits for length) in the Colorado Statesman weekly as a guest commentary (appearing online Monday, 13 May 2013)

Last week’s Colorado Statesman was host to a pair of guest commentary articles extolling the virtues of the newly-opened Colorado Justice Center.

Admittedly, it is an impressive edifice – as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor noted, with an “architectural grandeur” imposing a feeling of being “humbled before the majesty of the law.”

(Photo originally published in Denver Post media gallery)

The irony of such an imposing, monumental structure being named after former Colorado governor Ralph Carr – a “principled politician” with an attitude of humble service to the citizens of our state –
is striking.

Other media reported on the extravagant costs of the sumptuously-appointed $288M judicial edifice – with “$1,300 wood serving carts with silver trays sitting in Supreme Court Justice Michael Bender’s reception room” along with $5,000 desks, $4800 leather sofas, $2375 credenzas with “antique brass hardware” and a host of other “elegant” luxury appointments in the judges’ chambers.

So just where does all of this money to fund the massive new “judicial complex” came from?
Ultimately, of course, from your pockets – but the details are interesting.

Part of the funding (authorized during the 2008 legislative session under SB08-206 State Justice Center) came from an unprecedented expansion in use of “Certificates of Participation” (in the words of a state legislator, “debt pretending not to be debt”).  In fact, the legislative language specifies that the debt is simply re-defined as “not-debt” by declaring

the obligations shall not be deemed or construed as creating an indebtedness of the state within the meaning of any provision of the state constitution or the laws of the state of Colorado concerning or limiting the creation of indebtedness by the state of Colorado and shall not constitute a multiple fiscal-year direct or indirect debt or other financial obligation of the state within the meaning of section 20 (4) of article X of the state constitution. [SB08-206, Section 2, (2) (b), page 5]

“Crazy on Court Fees”

However, by far the greatest proportion of funding for the new judicial complex comes in the form of increasing the cost of access to justice by Colorado citizens via substantial increases in court fees (including creation of an entirely new category – the “Justice Center Fund” fee).

Want to file a case in civil court, defend yourself against a claim, change your name, or request a civil protection order?  It’ll cost you an extra $37 for the “Justice Center Fund” – per filing.  Small claims court filings?  An extra $11 for the “Justice Center Fund”, thank you.

That’s just in your local county court – which may be hundreds of miles away from the judicial complex.  Need access to justice at the District Court level or higher?  Be prepared to cough up even more in “fees” for the “Justice Center Fund” – most actions in District Court or the Court of Appeals now cost an additional $68 for the fund, some as much as another $136 or even $204 each, at any of the 22 District Courts across Colorado, still miles from the Colorado Judicial Complex.

Even “domestic relations” cases are now more expensive thanks to the new  fees – legal separation, annulment, divorce will each cost another $26; child custody registration or child support order, another $15 fee.  Death in the family?  That’ll cost extra, too – another $15 fee for probate filings, estate fees, conservatorship, etc.  Anywhere in the state – all of Colorado now enjoys the “privilege” of contributing to this marvelous new edifice.

Even an “insufficient funds” return check fee for court payments (already $40, which is double what any private entity is allowed to charge) gets another $10 fee tacked on for the ”Justice Center Fund” (truly, adding insult to injury).

Need to fight a case up to a higher court?  Pretty much ANY actions at the Colorado Court of Appeals now costs an additional $68 fee for that ”Justice Center Fund.”  Water Court?  Same story – almost every activity listed incurs an additional $68 for the ”Justice Center Fund” (some activities, such as applying for Change of Water Right or Plan for Augmentation, cost double – $136).

Ironically, the ONLY court where you WON’T have to pay an extra “Justice Center Fund” fee to pursue justice?  You guessed it – the Colorado Supreme Court, whose “home” is being financed by all of these “fees” in the first place.

(View the full list of Colorado Court Fees – featuring the ”Justice Center Fund” fee)

It’s been said that “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”  Constitutionally, “fees” are only supposed to be charged to offset the cost of providing or administering a voluntarily accessed good or service.  Since most people paying the “fees” receive no direct benefit from the new “Justice Center” those “fees” are really more of a tax.  Taxes, constitutionally, cannot be increased without a vote of the people.  Perhaps that’s why the Colorado Supreme Court’s majority decision in the 2008 Barber v. Ritter “Fees aren’t really taxes” case – expanding the use of “fees” by government entities across the state as a means of evading constitutional protections against tax increases – carries the taint of self-interest.

Of course, the entity which reviews the constitutionality of the “fees” and “certificates of participation” used to finance the new judicial complex is that branch of government receiving the greatest benefit: the Colorado Supreme Court, at the pinnacle of the state judicial system, has the final word.

The Colorado Justice Center, far from being a tribute to transparency or honoring the memory of the man after whom it is named, stands as a monument to an imperial, unaccountable state judiciary.

Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts.  We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.

However, we can’t do it alone –  we need your continued support; via your comments (Sound Off!) and, yes, your contributions.  Freedom isn’t free –nor is it always easy to be a Citizen, not a subject.

Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.

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