Ask The Indy: What’s the party affiliation of judges on Colorado’s 2018 ballot?

We don't elect judges here. Their party information might be public, but it’s not so easy to see

Photo by North Charleston for creative Commons on Flickr

Here’s a question a dozen readers have asked us this election cycle: How can I find out the party affiliation of the judges on my ballot?

“Why do I get to know the party of my county coroner on my voting ballot but not the judges who will make and shape our community and government?” asked Lois Yancey, a Colorado voter for over 25 years. 

Voter Kathleen Crowley, a healthcare worker in Arvada, put a similar question to our “Ask the Indy” desk, adding, “It is important for me because I am voting a straight Democratic ticket for this year.”

The short answer is this: Judges in Colorado no longer run as members of a political party, so to find out the affiliation of judges on your ballot, you’ll have to file an open records request with the state government.

Voters do not elect judges, but they do get to vote on whether to keep judges on the bench once they get there. And in answer to another question submitted to “Ask The Indy”: Judges are retained by a simple majority of votes.

In this election, 128 judges, ranging from Colorado Supreme Court justices all the way down to state and county judges, are up for retention on the ballot.

Related: Let’s talk about all those judges on your 2018 Colorado ballot

Judges in Colorado are non-elected and are prohibited by their code of conduct rules from getting involved in political activity. They cannot, for instance, donate money to candidates, says Suzanne Staiert, the state’s deputy secretary of state.

“We hold ourselves out as an unbiased, impartial institution,” says Kent Wagner, director of the Colorado Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation.

As the confirmation process for judges at the federal level has become more partisan, Wagner says he understands how some voters might be confused and equate that with seeing judges on their own ballots in Colorado.

Wagner says when he used to work for the state courts more directly, he felt he shouldn’t even put a bumper sticker for a political candidate on his car or a sign in his yard.

“I even went as far as saying to my wife she couldn’t have one on her half of the yard, either,” he jokes.

Judges up for retention in Colorado also cannot set up a political committee to campaign for their own retention — unless someone sets up one against them.

And that happens, including in this year’s election season.

This year, Frank Azar, a personal injury attorney in Denver, has donated $224,000 to a group that’s running negative ads against a judge up for retention, The Colorado Sun reported.

State judges used to run on a party platform and be on the ballot, but in the mid-’60s, voters passed a constitutional amendment that replaced that system with one in which they are nominated by the governor.

A local nomination panel or the Supreme Court Nominating Commission suggests three names. Unlike in some other states, the state Senate does not have to weigh in and confirm judges in Colorado. If you want to learn more about how judges are nominated you can watch this video.

As for their political party affiliation, some judges might change their voter registration to unaffiliated once they don a robe, Staiert, the deputy secretary of state, says.

A member of the public might be able to find out a judge’s political leanings by obtaining his or her voting information through a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. Even then, though, it might not be accessible. A judge could apply to be a confidential voter if he or she fear they that making the the information public could bring them harm. If you file a CORA request, the secretary of state’s office would want the judge’s name, date of birth and address. That applies if you’re seeking information on any voter in Colorado, not just judges. Here, our party affiliation is a matter of public record. 

CORA information would show the judge’s political party and in which years he or she cast a ballot — but obviously not who he or she voted for. If an unaffiliated judge who is not a confidential voter chose a Democratic or a Republican ballot in this year’s June primary elections, that would be information obtainable in an open records request, too. It’s unlikely the secretary of state would charge a voter money for the request. 

Because party affiliation doesn’t appear next to the judges on the ballot, Colorado voter Ron Ermold said he went as far as to look up which governor appointed the judges on his own ballot.

“The overwhelming number were by Democrats,” he said. “If not retained, the incoming governor will be able to make several appointments. If retained, appointments will be limited.”

Colorado’s Constitution states that each Supreme Court justice  “shall be a qualified elector of the state of Colorado and shall have been licensed to practice law in this state for at least five years.” An elector is someone who has the right to vote in an election.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity compiled the State Integrity Investigation, which analyzed multiple areas of state government in each state to assess a state’s risk for corruption. (Full disclosure, I worked on the project.) Concerning Colorado’s evaluation system of judicial performance, the report said:

County judges in Colorado “shall be qualified electors of their counties at the time of their election or appointment.” For some county court judges in Colorado there are exceptions to these qualifications. For instance, in some counties in Colorado, county judges have to be lawyers. But in some other counties the county judge must have graduated from high school or completed a high school equivalency exam, but does not have to be a lawyer. For those judges, the law states, they “shall not take office for the first time as county judge until they have attended an institute on the duties and functioning of the county court to be held under the supervision of the supreme court, unless such attendance is waived by the supreme court.”

County court judges are also appointed by the governor — except in Denver where the mayor appoints them.

Current Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, appointed five out out of the seven sitting Colorado Supreme Court Judges.

To learn about where to find information regarding those judges on the ballot, click here.