‘We as a branch are in crisis’: Colorado chief justice speaks about allegations during annual address to lawmakers

Boatright vows to bring a ‘culture change’ to the Judicial Branch, where widespread misconduct, sexual harassment and discrimination is alleged

Colorado Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright delivers the annual Colorado State of the Judiciary address on Feb. 18, 2021, in the state House. (screenshot)

Colorado Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright started his annual State of the Judiciary address on Thursday with a wavering voice. 

He shared that when he reached out to a long-time employee of the Judicial Branch this past week, she told him that for the first time in her 20-year career, she was not proud to say where she worked. 

“That broke my heart,” said Boatright, who was sworn in as chief justice on Jan. 1. During his address to state lawmakers, he vowed to bring a “culture change” to the judicial branch, which has been rocked by recent allegations of widespread misconduct at the highest level, as well as claims of sexual harassment and sexism. 

In early February, allegations emerged in reporting by The Denver Post that former chief of staff Mindy Masias was awarded $2.5 million contract to prevent her from filing a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against the branch.

The Colorado Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it is asking other government branches — including the governor’s office, attorney general’s office and leaders of both parties in the House and Senate — for help in selecting independent investigators to look into the allegations. Boatright committed to cooperating with the investigation and making the results to the public.

‘We want to know the truth’

“I’m here to tell the Legislature, the governor, every member of the branch, and most importantly the citizens of the state of Colorado and employees that we’re going to get this right,” Boatright said during his speech in the state House of Representatives. “We want to know the truth.” 

Michael Dougherty, the district attorney for the state’s 20th Judicial District, which encompasses Boulder County, said the information he’s read regarding potential misconduct in the Judicial Branch is extremely troubling.

“What this highlights is the importance of the media, because, just speaking candidly, we would not be where we are today if it weren’t for the reporting on this issue,” Dougherty said. “The lack of transparency and the possible misconduct that’s taken place is incredibly concerning and it undermines the integrity of the entire judicial system. I’m glad that investigations are now underway and I’m hopeful that we’ll see the result of those investigations and that they’re shared publicly.”

The alleged misconduct within the Judicial Department was largely brought to the public’s attention through a series of articles published by the Post starting in 2019.

The Colorado Office of the State Auditor is conducting a separate investigation related to the allegations, led by the state’s top auditor, Dianne Ray.

Garnett and Garcia
House Speaker Alec Garnett, left, and Senate President Leroy Garcia listen as Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address at the Colorado State Capitol Building on Feb. 17, 2021. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

“This is the only first step toward a journey of rectification,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, in a written statement after Boatright’s address.

“If recent allegations are true, harassment, sexism, and power abuse are common occurrences throughout the ranks of the Judiciary — a truly horrifying thing to imagine,” Leroy added. “Action must proceed quickly and comprehensively to address these allegations, leaving no stone unturned, until we right the wrongs of the past and ensure impeccable leadership going forward.” 

Chief justice requests assistance to address ‘tsunami’ of jury trials

In addition to discussing the allegations regarding the judicial department, Boatright also touched on how the branch is working to diversify its ranks and address racial inequity in Colorado’s criminal justice system. 

“One of the best ways to ensure equal justice for all is to have judges that reflect the communities they serve,” Boatright said. “I’m proud to say that Gov. (Jared) Polis appointed more Black women to the bench — five — in the one year period between Sept. 1, 2019, and Aug. 31, 2020, than in the previous 25 years combined.”

A photograph of the Denver Justice Center, a courthouse and detention building located in the Civic Center District, taken on Aug. 4, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

During his address, he implored state lawmakers and the governor to step in and help the branch dig its way out of the “tsunami” of jury trials that have piled up during the past year.

“I started my speech by recognizing that we as a branch are in crisis. But we also face another crisis,” he said. “This, however, is not a crisis of our own doing. This is a practical crisis caused by the pandemic.”

Boatright said the branch needs more staff — and more state funds — to meet the challenges.

“Over the past five years, we’ve held an average of 2,716 jury trials a year,” Boatright said. “On January 19 of 2021, we had 14,635 jury trials scheduled statewide, with over 10,000 of those being criminal trials.”

He would like the Legislature to put forth an amendment that extends Colorado’s speedy trial mandate, which requires defendants who plead not guilty to have their case heard within six months. With a longer deadline, he said the courts will have more time to catch up.

HELP US GROW
Make a tax-deductible donation.