Jon Caldara, Legal, Politics

Time to put the “Strong Arm” on judges

God bless Frank Azar.

Right up there with Dealin’ Doug hocking cars in a Superman cape and Jake Jabs, who used to get mauled by tigers while sitting on one of his reasonably priced sofas, this ambulance chaser is one of Denver’s best-known stars of self-produced TV commercials.

The jowly “Strong Arm” promises to get you gobs of money for being injured in a car accident. Don’t tell me you haven’t been sick, missing work, lying in bed and suffering through intolerable daytime television without thinking, “Crap Frank. Wish I’d get hit by a car.”

Frank serves another great purpose this year. He reminds us there is a third, forgotten-yet-equal branch of Colorado government. While record-breaking millions are being plowed into in the campaigns for our next governor, state legislature and assorted ballot issues, Azar might be the only donor giving to the least-known part of the ballot — our unaccountable judges.

Unlike judges for the federal government, Colorado judges don’t have a lifetime appointment. That’s in theory at least. In reality we have a Kabuki theater version of voter accountability. In the same way the TSA screenings at airports and gun control are about making us feel safe rather than actually being safe, Colorado’s judicial retention elections are just for show.

A Colorado judge is as likely to lose his retention election as anyone named Castro will lose a Cuban election.

When a judge is appointed here in Colorado he stands for an up or down vote of the people two years later, and then again every 10 years if he’s on the Supreme Court, and a varying number of years for lower courts.

The average voter doesn’t know much about our black-robed arbiters. Unlike the governor who is in the news every day, or even state legislators, the media rarely gives any ink to a judge until they’re caught in a brothel. And politicians get ranked by every conceivable advocacy group — tax, abortion, gun, environmental groups — so voters get at least a sense of where candidates stand on political philosophy. Not so much with our judges. Judges’ party affiliation aren’t even listed on the ballot. So how do you vote?

Don’t worry. The government is here to help. It created Commissions on Judicial Performance to provide recommendations on retaining judges. You can read them in your election Blue Book.

The commissions are made up mostly of fellow judges and attorneys, who by the way, appear in front of those very judges they’re reviewing. So, in keeping with our tortured Cuban analogy, it’s like having other guys with the last name Castro and the people working for them do the official Cuban voting guide.

This year in my Blue Book every single judge up for retention “meets performance standards,” just like every other election I can remember. Lake Wobegon children, eat your hearts out.

On very rare occasion the commission will say a judge doesn’t meet performance standards, and still they usually win re-election. According to an investigation by KUSA only three such judges lost retention in the last 20 years. And judges that get a thumbs-down by the commission still average a 54 percent “yes” vote.

The Colorado Sun reported Frank Azar is the sole donor, giving $224,000, to a campaign for a “no” vote on retaining 17th Judicial District Judge Edward Moss. It’s not hard to gather that the Strong Arm feels wronged by how the judge treated one of his clients.

So, out of the over $100 million dollars spent in Colorado elections this year only around $224,000 is going to influence the third branch of government. That’s about 0.002 percent of all the political money spent going to draw attention to a third of our government.

Like you, I don’t know if Judge Moss deserves to be tossed, but kudos to Frank Azar for forcing at least some consideration on judges.

As for me, I’ll do what I always do on judge retention — vote no on all of them. Not because I think they’re all bad, but because the retention system is bad. Judges always seem to win retention by 60 to 70 percent of the vote. Once that starts getting closer to 50 percent, then I’ll dial into the races and make careful choices.

Until then I say vote no on this Kabuki theater.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on November 2, 2018.


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