Originally published in The Denver Post:
Colorado’s courts have long lacked the transparency demanded of other branches of government. Deadlines require the state legislature to act on bills in a timely manner and allow citizens to easily monitor their progress.
But the court system operates behind a veil. Lawyers can access certain information as a case moves toward trial, but once a case is heard by a judge – especially a civil, or non-criminal, case – the parties involved have no way to know when to expect a verdict. The public is completely in the dark.
Media watchdogs who would decry lack of accountability by legislators, city councilors or county commissioners seem to accept without question that courts issue opinions whenever they get around to it. News reports about judges failing to produce timely decisions simply do not exist.
A particularly egregious case recently came to a head in Denver District Court where Judge Ross Buchanan issued a ruling nearly three years after trial. Worse still, Buchanan’s ruling smacks of vindictiveness against a defendant who had the temerity to complain about this unconscionable delay.
Back in 2014, the Colorado Attorney General’s office filed a complaint against College America, a private nonprofit college that, for over 20 years, served Coloradans for whom traditional schools were not a good fit. Its campuses in Denver, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins served some 900 students and provided 230 jobs. In 2015, Judge Michael Mullins denied the AG’s request for an injunction against College America, ruling that the State had failed to demonstrate that it was likely to prove its allegations.
Those initial accusations received broad media coverage, but the favorable ruling by Judge Mullins went largely unreported. Judge Mullins soon retired, and the case was transferred to Judge Buchanan who held a four-week trial in October-November 2017.
Judge Buchanan did not issue a ruling in 2018 nor in 2019. All the while, the lawsuit hung over College America’s future like a sword of Damocles. In September 2019, College America stopped enrolling new students and, one year later, closed all of its Colorado campuses.
In January 2020, frustrated by the court’s inaction, College America’s leadership finally asked the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline to look into this inexplicable delay. Buchanan assured the commission that he had been working diligently.
Four months passed and still no decision, so CEO Eric Juhlin filed a formal “Request for Evaluation of Judicial Conduct,” citing the tremendous uncertainty that this unresolved case was creating, not just in Colorado but for campuses in other states.
“My only fear and hesitation about filing this request,” he wrote, “is that it might cause the Judge to retaliate against me personally in this decision.”
Over the next few months, CCJD repeatedly asked for updates on the case, indicated that it would be an agenda item at future meetings, and sent a “private reprimand” to Judge Buchanan. Miraculously, at 4:46 AM on the very day of the Commission’s next meeting, Buchanan finally produced a decision. But instead of a ruling that evidenced years of thoughtful consideration, his decision was mostly a cut-and-paste of the proposed findings written by the Attorney General’s office 2½ years earlier.
Worse still, Buchanan’s decision suspiciously applied provisions of a bill passed by the legislature in 2019 – a law that literally did not exist when the case was tried.
Whether these delays are typical for Judge Buchanan – or any other Colorado judge – is a mystery because Colorado’s Judicial Performance Commissions do not produce any hard data about a judge’s timeliness. Buchanan’s 2016 retention report indicates that he rated below average for “promptly issuing a decision on the case after trial.” But that’s based merely on a survey of parties who had appeared in his courtroom, rather than an objective measurement.
Other branches of government function transparently, adhering to deadlines and telling the public when officials are reprimanded. It is not unreasonable to expect the same of our taxpayer-funded courts.