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Nicolais: Colorado’s judicial system is broken. Can Chief Justice Boatright fix it?

Colorado’s chief justice has developed skills that should help him guide the judicial branch through its current crisis

An emotional Colorado Chief Justice Brian Boatright addressed the legislature and the people of Colorado on Thursday.

The judicial branch has been battered by allegations ranging from discrimination to sexual assault and coverups, and now massive cracks in the ivory tower of the judicial branch threaten to crumble its reputation and Coloradans’ faith in the institution.

Finding a path forward falls to the new chief justice installed only a few weeks ago.

Mario Nicolais

Before Boatright donned the robes of our state’s top court in 2011, he helped lead the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program for children in Jefferson County. An overriding principle for CASA is to help bring families broken by terrible circumstances back together. 

The patience and skills he developed working with CASA should benefit him greatly as he deals with the firestorm engulfing the judicial branch today.

He did not shy away from the misconduct allegations or their ramifications. Instead, he took responsibility. Acknowledging the problem exists and must be dealt with is the critical first step, whether for a family member hoping to reunite with their children or a judiciary wanting to regain the trust of the people.

Of course, first steps are always hard.

Just as parents struggling with substance use disorders or domestic violence often take years to admit a problem exists, the court itself has avoided accountability for a prolonged period. Only the extraordinary efforts of investigative journalists at The Denver Post uncovered the pattern of misconduct and subsequent coverups.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Until very recently, the judicial branch fought to keep a damning memo from public scrutiny. The memo outlined allegations made by former Judicial Department chief of staff Mindy Masias and subsequent investigative findings. Keeping it secret — and Masias quiet — seems to have been the impetus behind a multimillion-dollar contract awarded to Masias when she left the department.

That is precisely the type of action that turns a tragic event into a corrosive pattern. And it is the pattern that destroys lives and institutions.

Boatright’s innate understanding of that truism may make him the perfect person for the moment. He knows that difficult steps must be taken toward recovery, but it is just as important to provide the resources to complete the journey.

Asking for an independent investigation by the other branches of government was both wise and necessary. Given the pervasive nature of attempts within the judiciary to shield itself from disclosure, an internal investigation would have never been credible. 

To the contrary, the best-case scenario would be for the members of the panel to include judicial skeptics willing to dig deep into the cloistered judicial branch and root out any semblance of malfeasance. Rot that has festered for years sends tentacles deep into its host; each one must be found and ripped out.

Flagellation by co-equal branches will only be the beginning. Once the curative light of a thorough investigation has come, the cavities and voids left behind must be filled. Boatright’s commitment to increased diversity should help. Though it will never cover the scars left by this moment, once allowed to set that diversity should make foundation far stronger than the one that crumbled behind a false façade.

Boatright should also insist on more open and transparent disciplinary proceedings. While that will be difficult given the protections in the state constitution, it is not impossible. Given that the greatest casualty — except for the individual victims of misconduct — has been to the public perception of the judiciary, increased transparency is a requisite part of the solution.

People make terrible errors, and powerful institutions are no different. Those errors can spiral out of control quickly. Fixing the problems always takes exponentially more time and dedication.

Colorado Chief Justice Boatright has seen plenty of people go through this journey. Hopefully, that will help set him up for success as he guides the judicial branch along that path. It is important for both the institution and for the state as a whole.


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


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