Hickenlooper names judge who presided over trial of Aurora theater shooter to CO Supreme Court

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced that he is appointing Carlos A. Samour Jr. to the Colorado Supreme Court during a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday. Photo by John Herrick

Gov. John Hickenlooper, cementing his imprint on Colorado’s Supreme Court, on Wednesday appointed Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. to the state’s highest court.

Samour, formerly District Court Judge for the 18th Judicial District, is perhaps best known for presiding over the Aurora movie theater shooting trial. He is replacing Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice, who announced in March she is retiring after 31 years as a member of the judicial body.

“I will sacrifice, suffer and struggle every day in the pursuit of justice,” Judge Samour said during a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday. “I will seek justice every day with tireless expiration and passionate concern. I will do everything within my power to make Colorado proud.”

This marks Hickenlooper’s fifth Colorado Supreme Court Justice appointment to the seven-member panel as the term-limited Democrat prepares to leave office after November’s election. The next governor will be sworn in in January next year.

In a statement, Hickenlooper said Samour complements the Supreme Court both professionally and personally.

“He has presided over some of Colorado’s highest profile cases in recent history and has distinguished himself, without exception, as being fair and impartial regardless of the magnitude of the case,” Hickenlooper said.

Samour, who was a child when he and his family fled impending civil war in their native El Salvador, was among three prospective justices considered for the job. The other two in the running were 2nd Judicial District Judge Karen Brody and former 20th Judicial District Chief Judge Maria Berkenkotter.

Justice Nathan Coats will take over as chief justice.

Samour received his law degree from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. After presiding over People of the State of Colorado v. James Eagan Holmes, Samour became the 2015 Judicial Officer of the Year for “his capable handling of one of the most highly publicized and notorious criminal cases in Colorado history,” according to a Colorado Judicial Branch court release.

Samour is a Columbine High School graduate, and he received both his undergraduate degree with honors from the University of Colorado at Denver. After law school, Samour clerked for Judge Robert McWilliams of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, spent five years in private practice, then became deputy district attorney for 10 years. In 2006, he became District Court Judge of the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.

The Supreme Court decides on 75 to 100 cases each year on every type of legal matter, according to Gregory Hobbs, former Supreme Court justice for the state.  Although many cases reach the Supreme Court through the state’s lower court system, some cases, including those involving water, the Public Utility Commission, and death penalty appeals go straight to the Supreme Court.

When the justices deliberate, they sit around a large rectangular table, with the most junior justice facing the most senior, Hobbs said. During deliberation, the junior justice always has to give his or her opinion first.

“You learn right away when you come onto the Colorado Supreme Court — the other six justices are going to be looking at you, your analysis and your vote,” Hobbs said. “This is a great system because you can’t sit back and defer to the senior.”

The job is challenging, and justices have to be prepared for the “avalanche of reading,” Hobbs said.  Most of all, they have to be able to work collegially.

“The justices basically live together day in and day out… You have to have common sense and you can’t take insult,” he said.

Hickenlooper’s Legacy

With Samour’s appointment, Hickenlooper has selected the majority of Colorado’s Supreme Court Justices, and those justices can keep working as long as voters continue to vote to retain them.

Samour will serve an initial term of two years before Coloradans can vote to retain him, or to let him continue to his next term. If Coloradans vote to keep Samour as a justice in 2020, then he will continue on to a 10-year term.

In 2012, Stanford professors did a study analyzing the political leanings of courts around the country, and Colorado ranked as the 16th most liberal court in the country. The researchers looked at how the judges themselves contributed to political campaigns, and at the political leanings of the person that appointed them. Although the study was not considered a definitive label of a justice (more of an academic gauge of various factors), the Colorado Supreme Court still ended up on the liberal side of the scale.

All three of the nominees for this court appointment made campaign contributions exclusively to Democratic campaigns. Samour gave $1,360 to political campaigns since 1997, with most of that going to former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter during his successful gubernatorial run in 2006, according to the Colorado Secretary of State.  Karen Brody gave the most, with more than $2,000 going to Democratic campaigns.

With that said, do Coloradans need to worry about a biased court? No, argues former Justice Hobbs, saying that Colorado voters saw to that in 1966, when they voted to use a merit-based system to appoint judges in order to avoid any political entanglements.

“There wasn’t one day in the 19-and-a-half years that I served as justice that I had to be worried about the political ramifications of a decision,” Hobbs said. And when it came to retiring Chief Justice Nancy Rice, “You could not predict what side of the case she would come out on…and that’s the kind of justice you have to strive to be.”

Reporter John Herrick contributed to this story. 

Photo by John Herrick. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announces the appointment of Judge Carlos Samour Jr. to the Colorado Supreme Court on May 30, 2018 at the Colorado Capitol.