17 February 2006

Rural Courts in Colorado

Colorado's state courts are relatively efficient for the most part. Our legislature and Supreme Court have not been afraid to adopt innovative procedural rules. Our system of appointing judges is far superior in practice to the alternatives: pure political appointment by the Governor with or without legislative approval (3 states at the appellate level), pure political appointment by the legislature alone (1 state at the appellate level), or judicial elections (21 states, 13 non-partisan and 8 partisan, at the appellate level and more at the trial court level). But, the system still has real problems in rural counties.

I've heard first hand reports of courts in rural counties refusing to follow the newly adopted state court rules that require courts to e-file (rather than snail mail) their orders to the parties in cases where the parties have e-filed their pleadings to the court. Colorado still allows non-attorneys to serve as county court judges is rural counties, and my understanding is that there are still a few of them serving. There are coroner's who sometimes work with the system, in every county, but as some Colorado counties have only a few hundred people in them, these coroner's are routinely underfunded, sometimes carrying dead bodies around in the backs of their personal pickup trucks and having little access to the kind of laboratory facilities they need to do their work.

The latest example of rural courts in action came in a case my firm just completed in Yuma, Colorado. We mailed a document to the District Court (the one of general jurisidction there) on November 29, 2005. It was received (as indicated by a file stamp) on November 30, 2005. We included a copy to file stamp and return to us, and a self-addressed stamped envelope. We got it back on February 16, 2006, which is 78 days later, and it is highly unlikely that this was the fault of the postal service (for example, there were no postal service notations on the envelope or indicatations that it was battered in transit). We weren't prejudiced by the delay, but it is a benchmark of the differences in efficiency between courts in Colorado's urban areas, where that kind of thing doesn't happen, and those in its rural areas, where that kind of thing is not uncommon. (Although, in fairness, the other factor is that TABOR has recently caused judicial department staffing statewide to be deeply cut statewide.

In theory, the state has multicounty judicial districts, but in practice, this principally means that judges in those districts ride circuit from one courthouse to another at the county seats within their counties, in courts that are otherwise operated (with facilities provided) on a county level. Thus, few of the efficiency benefits of a true multi-county judicial district system are realized. It's one area where there is room for improvement, without constitutional change, and with only minor adjustments in state court rules and Colorado statutes, in our judical system.


Anonymous said...

Dear Prophet, you write: "in fairness, the other factor is that TABOR has recently caused judicial department staffing statewide to be deeply cut statewide." In fact, TABOR did not "cause" these cuts; bad political philosophy on the part of legislators led too many of them to treat the judicial branch as all other government departments were treated with regard to Tabor. In my view, the judicial branch should be the last department to suffer budget cuts in times of shrinking revenues. (Full disclosure: I am an attorney who once clerked for the current chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court.) FYI Colorado Judicial Branch Budget Request Fiscal 2007

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Fair enough, the legislature could have cut elsewhere, but they did have to cut dramatically, and they did have many avenues cut off to them due to Amendment 26 which limited cuts to K-12 and federal Medicaid mandates, and the limited imposed by criminal sentences currently being served.

Never the less, niceties of exact language aside, it is clear that the reason legislators even considered cutting the judicial department budget was the very tight budget situation that arose in Colorado in substantial part as a result of TABOR. In short, not everyone in the legislature shared your quite reasonable budgetary priorities.