Merit System Celebrates 40 Years
by Chris Little
It is time to celebrate our judicial system. This is the 40th year that judges in Colorado have been nominated to the Bench through a merit selection system that was enacted by voters through a constitutional amendment. In 1966, the Colorado Bar Association and the League of Women Voters of Colorado were instrumental in placing an initiative on the ballot and encouraging the legislature to approve a merit selection amendment to the Colorado
The merit selection plan, historically known as the Missouri Plan, has become the most prevalent method of judicial selection for appellate courts, and is only slightly less favored in the context of trial court judges. Missouri adopted the first commission in 1940. More notable, between 1958 and 1990, 50 percent of states switched judicial selection methods, 84 percent of which chose the merit plan. Few states that have adopted the merit selection plan have abandoned it. There is talk by some activists to seek another voter initiative to discard the system and return our judiciary to partisan politics. I hope we don’t go down that road.
For 40 years it has worked. This track record speaks for itself. For 40 years, this system has ensured political neutrality in the manner in which members of the nominating commissions are selected. The Supreme Court Nominating Commission consists of: the Supreme Court chief justice (a non-voting member); one lawyer; seven non-lawyers, one from each of the seven congressional districts; and one additional non-lawyer. The judicial district nominating commissions are chaired by a Supreme Court justice and comprised of seven citizens from that judicial district, at least one voting member from each county in the district, no more than four of whom can be from the same political party. The non-attorneys are appointed by the governor, and the attorneys are jointly-appointed by the governor, Supreme Court chief justice and the attorney general. While there are special rules regarding the composition of the judicial district nominating commissions, typically members serve six-year terms (Denver County employs a modified system).
The merit selection system works in Colorado and we should be proud of it. To show support for our judicial leaders, over the past months, I have asked several judicial officers to write about the world in which they work. We have heard from Judge C. Jean Stewart from Denver Probate Court, Justice Hobbs in the Supreme Court, Judge Davidson from the Court of Appeals, and Judge Armatas in Denver County Court. With the exception of fantastic literary skills from
Inequitable budget cuts, lack of prospective funding and an increase in a population that loves to litigate have put a great deal of stress on our judiciary. Our judiciary is in a difficult position, but doesn’t need changing with term limits or popular elections — it needs support from the lawyers who rely on it, and financial support from the state. Judge Davidson reported on an appellate overload that may require internal modifications with slip opinions or simple one-line affirmations. I hope we don’t experience that. She also implied that her desire for another panel in her field of dreams would ease their pain (thank you Kevin Costner). Call your senator or representative and strongly urge them to support HB 1028 to fund another panel. Judge Armatas reported that there are more than 200,000 filings in Denver County Court. Judge Stewart, and (soon) Judge McGahey, reported on their constraints. Denver courts and courts statewide have not yet recovered from the numerous layoffs that the system experienced between 2002 and 2004. Our judiciary does not need more cuts. It needs more funding.
I want to applaud our many judges who trust our system of merit selection. The process operates at a level far beyond politics and fundraising, and ensures judicial independence and accountability. Your judicial officers have told you they work many hours but, remarkably, they enjoy their jobs and excel at dispensing justice, despite having to perform secretarial, paralegal and janitorial duties. Wouldn’t it be nice to know your judge was reading your brief instead of answering phones or mopping floors? Please show them your support by urging the elected officials to find funding so our courts can continue to serve our clients with the quality and integrity we require.
We are lucky. Our judges are not subject to the morals of the current electoral process. Can you imagine commercials from judges pandering to hot topics, excessive partisanship and political corruption? How sad would it be to have your client insinuate that the case was lost because you did not contribute to the judge’s election campaign.
The merit selection system has successfully served Colorado since its adoption. Happy Birthday, best wishes for another 40 years, and my hopes for better funding.
Join the Celebration! Starting on Law Day, May 1, 2006, the Judicial Branch, the Colorado Judicial Institute and the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations will kick off a year-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of our judicial merit selection and retention process.