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Nicolais: Martinez decision demonstrates Colorado’s Supreme Court commitment to judicial discipline

While much of the federal government remains shutdown by political strife, Colorado’s top court continues to work just as it should

The Colorado Supreme Court sent shockwaves through various industry, environmental and political circles when it issued an opinion in COGCC v. Martinez last week.

While the outcome of the decision certainly sparked multiple reactions and set the stage for an epic legislative policy battle, the rationale and reasoning behind the court’s opinion drew scant review.

Coloradans should recognize both good and bad in that dearth of attention.

Mario Nicolais

Most importantly, the opinion penned by Justice Richard Gabriel confirmed that at least one branch of government continues to function in the precise way our system of government prescribes.

Operating as expected isn’t exactly a sexy news topic, but shouldn’t be underrated in a political climate where a government shutdown dominates headlines.

Not only did Colorado’s Supreme Court accept the case, read legal briefs, hear oral arguments and issue an opinion, but it did so in such a workmanlike manner that even the losing side seemed to suggest they got it right.

The Colorado Sun reported that the lead plaintiff, Xiuhtexcatl Martinez, seemed unsurprised, even if disappointed. Similarly, the news release from environmental group Colorado Rising simply acknowledged the Supreme Court read the law as written and pivoted to pressuring the Colorado legislature to implement change.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

They didn’t even bother with the typical “while we disagree with the decision” intro normally trotted out before moving on.

The understated reaction may emanate most directly from the jurisprudential rigor expressed by Gabriel in the opinion. His methodical analysis walked through the rules governing the standard of review and explained the principles of statutory interpretation to be used before he applied them to the facts.

The process dictated the outcome, not the other way around. That is exactly how our judicial branch is intended to work. It might be boring, but it is bedrock to a functional system of justice.

Adhering to these principles is not as easy as it may seem. It often requires judges to separate their personal beliefs from their public duty.

When Gabriel wrote a similar set of opinions about fracking almost three years ago, I hypothesized that he likely disfavored the outcome on a personal basis. Similarly in this case, if he had been a state legislator and not a Supreme Court justice, I presume he would have voted to change the law.

But Gabriel and his six colleagues on the bench understand that is not their charge; they can only interpret the law presented to them, not change what the legislature has written and a governor has signed.

Unfortunately, the same discipline that creates predictable outcomes also makes for a pretty bland news story. It’s only when courts do something unexpected that, such as the court of appeals overturning the trial court here, the substance of decisions gets much attention.

In turn, little coverage of judicial restraint such as Gabriel’s opinion allows for the continued misconception that judges will act in a manner consistent with the political ideology of the person by whom the judge was appointed.

Consequently, labels with little value — such as “an Obama judge” — routinely get affixed to members of the bench. The Martinez case presents an example of how misleading such misnomers can be: five of the seven justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper but nonetheless ruled in a manner contrary to standard Democratic ideology.

It wasn’t the first time this court demonstrated its independence from political ideology, and it won’t be the last.

The next four months should present plenty of fireworks in the Colorado legislature in the ongoing battle between oil and gas interests and environmental activists. With Democrats in sole power, they will surely be under immense pressure to enact legislation to change the mandate for COGCC.

Any new bill passed will certainly draw a lawsuit, and the Colorado Supreme Court will be waiting to do its job.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

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