Vol. 43, No. 6
In and Around the Bar
Bar News Highlight
Right to Vote, Rule of Law, and Independent Judiciary—Law Day and Beyond
by Christopher D. Bryan
About the Author
Christopher D. Bryan is a litigator at the Aspen office of Garfield & Hecht, P.C., and the president of the Pitkin County Bar Association—(970) 925-1936, email@example.com. A version of this article originally published in the Aspen Daily News on May 1, 2014, at www.aspendailynews.com/section/columnist/162145, and is printed here with permission of the author.
Colorado, like the rest of the United States, celebrated Law Day on May 1. The American Bar Association’s celebrations of Law Day are meant to draw attention to facets of our justice system and constitutional form of government.1 The 2014 Law Day theme of "American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters" has meaning to citizens everywhere.
In Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, where I live and practice law, and in Colorado generally, we know first-hand the importance of every single vote. Small towns—whether in Colorado’s resort communities or in more rural areas—have had numerous elections decided by a few votes or even a single vote. We know that voter turnout matters not only to determine who our elected leaders will be, but also because a highly engaged citizenry that votes and participates in representative democracy means stronger communities, more robust ideas, and, ultimately, a better future for everyone.
The Legal System Leads the Charge
Protecting citizens’ right to vote and ensuring eligible voters’ universal access to the ballot is among the most important tasks of our legal system, and it is one that many people in our community are involved with—from city staff, county clerks, and elected officials, to the election commissioners, poll watchers, and election judges who volunteer their time to ensure proper elections. Watchdog organizations, lawyers’ committees, and civil liberties groups also are important in ensuring legal access to the ballot for everyone, including minorities and underserved populations, and for the orderly administration of processing elections. Of course, all of this requires voters to be well-informed about the candidates and issues on the ballot, and to go to the polls and vote or mail in their completed ballots on time.
Enforcing the Rule of Law and
Supporting an Independent Judiciary
So that "every vote matters," we must be vigilant in ensuring that the rule of law remains intact. In Aspen, in Colorado, and throughout the United States, the rule of law depends on an intelligent, independent judiciary that safeguards the rights of everyone and applies the law equally. Every schoolchild learns that the Judicial Branch is a co-equal branch of government in our three-part system of checks and balances. Law Day is an especially appropriate day to recognize the hard and important work that judges perform in our society.
The federal district, bankruptcy, and appellate judges and magistrates who serve Colorado are an impressive bunch: smart, even-tempered, scrupulous, respectful of the truth, and fair to all sides. Under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, federal judges appointed to district court and appellate court judgeships are nominated by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate; they enjoy lifetime appointments, ended only by impeachment, resignation, or death. Conversely, bankruptcy court judges and magistrates are appointed for a finite number of years. Unlike many federal districts throughout the country, Colorado is lucky to have a highly functional federal judiciary with no current vacant judgeships. Vacancies on the bench can slow down the administration of justice for everyone.
In Praise of Colorado’s Judicial System
Our state court judges deserve special mention, for they are the ones who most people in Colorado encounter when they are summoned to jury duty or to appear at a hearing to testify or attend trial as a party. The county, district, and appellate state court judges in Colorado work incredibly hard, day in and day out, with dedicated but over-stretched support staff members, limited resources, and ever-expanding civil and criminal dockets.
Our state court judges decide every legal matter brought in state court: probate, family law and divorce cases, drunk driving, domestic abuse, sexual assault, violent crimes, theft, fraud, property fights, municipal and water matters, business disputes, civil litigation, and many others. By definition, our state court judges must be highly knowledgeable in all areas of the law and be proficient in the rules of evidence and procedure. They also must be able to discern untruthful testimony and pick apart attorneys’ arguments; make litigants, jurors, and lay witnesses feel at ease; and maintain decorum in a sometimes seemingly chaotic courtroom.
In Colorado, we have an appointment/retention system for placing judges. A judicial nominating commission (comprising several lawyers and even more non-lawyers) from each judicial district interviews and vets applicants for district court judgeships. The commission then nominates three finalists to the governor, who conducts his or her own review process. The governor appoints a judge to a provisional two-year term. Thereafter, the judge stands for retention by the voters for an additional six-year term. County court judges stand for retention every four years. Judges standing for retention are thoroughly reviewed and scrutinized by a local judicial performance commission, whose members vote for or against retention. This process avoids lifetime appointments and allows voters to remove ill-behaving or underperforming judges, but does not subject our judges to the indignities of judicial elections, and ensures steadiness in the judiciary by avoiding high turnover.
Some states elect judges, which politicizes the judiciary. In judicial-election states, candidates for judgeships have to "run" against one another, raise money from lawyers and special interest groups, and serve under the common impression that their rulings reward their benefactors. Other states impose strict term limits on judges, robbing their citizens of experienced judges who often are at their very best toward the end of their judicial career.
Recognizing Jurists in the Ninth J.D.
In the Ninth Judicial District, which encompasses Pitkin, Garfield, and Rio Blanco Counties, we are fortunate to have exemplary judges. Our county court judges are perhaps the most visible, because they process a high number of misdemeanor criminal cases each year and hear hundreds of small-claims and county court civil cases. Our five district court judges—Chief Judge Boyd, Judge Lynch, Judge Neiley, Judge Nichols, and Judge Petre—are all personable, diligent, thoughtful judges with sharp intellects and commensurate work ethics. They have been faced with one of the busiest dockets in Colorado, and the counties they represent are among the fastest growing in population. From my perspective, their jobs are among the most difficult anywhere, and they surely have earned the right to be called "Your Honor."
Law Day Beyond a Single Day
In celebrating Law Day every year, members of the legal profession and citizens alike are given opportunities to express our pride in and gratitude for our system of justice, our profession, and each other. We can be thankful that we live in a nation where every vote really does matter, and where the rule of law governs. We can feel fortunate to live in a state where judges serve the public interest with integrity. We can be proud to live in a community with judges who treat everyone with dignity, respect, fairness, and equality.
1. See Carparelli, "Preserving Our Heritage of Justice," 37 The Colorado Lawyer 13 (May 2008), www.cobar.org/tcl/tcl_articles.cfm?articleid=5552 (a discussion of the history of Law Day to mark its fiftieth anniversary).
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