As you comb through your 2016 Colorado mail-in ballot, one section might seem particularly inscrutable. I’m not referring to the myriad and complicated initiatives, one of which, in a very meta move, would create a constitutional amendment that would make it tougher to—wait for it—amend the state constitution.
I’m talking about the judges. In Colorado, most of our guardians of justice land on the bench via assisted appointment or merit selection. This means the governor appoints them, usually with the assistance of a judicial advisory board, and they serve a two-year term before facing an election. If voters retain them, they then serve a 10-year term.
Colorado is one of 34 states that have some variation of this system, as does the District of Columbia, so to a large extent it’s just how we roll. But where it gets complicated is when it comes time for voters to decide whether to retain or reject a judge.
There are 29 judges up for retention this year in Colorado, representing the state Supreme Court, the Colorado Court of Appeals, and the 2nd Judicial District, among others. This is where it gets tricky, because unless a judge has presided over a high-profile case, the average person probably has no idea who he or she is, let alone what kind of judicial track record they’ve compiled.
Online resources about these track records are available—sort of. It’s fairly easy to find any judge’s basic bio, and the Colorado Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation has set up a helpful website that broadly outlines each judge’s record and background. The problem with these thumbnail sketches is that A) the vast majority of them end up strongly concluding that every judge be retained, and B) the Colorado voters who are charged with making these decisions in 2016 will have to comb through 29 different Google searches to figure out whether this judge or that one deserves to stay on.
There’s a school of thought that says the entire concept of electing judges is deeply flawed to begin with. The main argument against this process is that politicizing the positions brings political spending into the equation, which could end up compromising judges’ most crucial asset: impartiality.
If the bizarre and tumultuous 2016 campaign season has resulted in anything productive, it’s that we all need to look much more deeply at our most hallowed institutions to ensure that they’re still working the way they’re supposed to. (Spoiler alert: not so much.) Rejiggering the judicial selection process is pretty far down the priority list, so for now we voters are probably stuck doing those 29 Google searches. Until our higher-ups come up with a better plan, suggestions are welcome.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.