Guest Columns

ARNOLD: BRING YOUR CHECKBOOK

The new Justice Center is a monument to imperial, unaccountable Colorado

GUEST COLUMNIST

Last week’s issue of The Colorado Statesman was host to a pair of guest judiciary commentary articles extolling the virtues of the newly-opened Colorado Justice Center.

Admittedly, it is an impressive edifice — as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted, with an “architectural grandeur” imposing a feeling of being “humbled before the majesty of the law.”

The irony of such an imposing, monumental structure being named after former Colorado governor Ralph Carr — a “principled politician” with an attitude of humble service to the citizens of our state — is striking.

Other media reported on the extravagant costs of the sumptuously-appointed $288M judicial edifice — with “$1,300 wood serving carts with silver trays sitting in Supreme Court Justice Michael Bender’s reception room” along with $5,000 desks, $4,800 leather sofas, $2,375 credenzas with “antique brass hardware” and a host of other “elegant” luxury appointments in the judges’ chambers.

So just where does all of this money to fund the massive new “judicial complex” came from? Ultimately, of course, from your pockets — but the details are interesting.

Part of the funding (authorized during the 2008 legislative session under SB08-206 State Justice Center) came from an unprecedented expansion in use of “Certificates of Participation” (in the words of a state legislator, “debt pretending not to be debt”). In fact, the legislative language specifies that the debt is simply re-defined as “not-debt” by declaring:

the obligations shall not be deemed or construed as creating an indebtedness of the state within the meaning of any provision of the state constitution or the laws of the state of Colorado concerning or limiting the creation of indebtedness by the state of Colorado and shall not constitute a multiple fiscal-year direct or indirect debt or other financial obligation of the state within the meaning of section 20 (4) of article X of the state constitution. [SB08-206, Section 2, (2) (b), page 5]

Crazy on Court Fees

However, by far the greatest proportion of funding for the new judicial complex comes in the form of increasing the cost of access to justice by Colorado citizens via substantial increases in court fees (including creation of an entirely new category — the “Justice Center Fund” fee).

Want to file a case in civil court, defend yourself against a claim, change your name, or request a civil protection order? It’ll cost you an extra $37 for the “Justice Center Fund” — per filing. Small claims court filings? An extra $11 for the “Justice Center Fund,” thank you.

That’s just in your local county court — which may be hundreds of miles away from the judicial complex. Need access to justice at the District Court level or higher? Be prepared to cough up even more in “fees” for the “Justice Center Fund” — most actions in District Court or the Court of Appeals now cost an additional $68 for the fund, some as much as another $136 or even $204 each, at any of the 22 District Courts across Colorado, still miles from the Colorado Judicial Complex.

Even “domestic relations” cases are now more expensive thanks to the new fees — legal separation, annulment, divorce will each cost another $26; child custody registration or child support order, another $15 fee. Death in the family? That’ll cost extra, too — another $15 fee for probate filings, estate fees, conservatorship, etc. Anywhere in the state — all of Colorado now enjoys the “privilege” of contribut-ing to this marvelous new edifice.

Ironically, the ONLY court where you WON’T have to pay an extra “Justice Center Fund” fee to pursue justice? You guessed it — the Colorado Supreme Court, whose “home” is being financed by all of these “fees” in the first place.

It’s been said that “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Constitutionally, “fees” are only supposed to be charged to offset the cost of providing or administering a voluntarily accessed good or service. Since most people paying the “fees” receive no direct benefit from the new “Justice Center” those “fees” are really more of a tax. Taxes, constitutionally, cannot be increased without a vote of the people. Perhaps that’s why the Colorado Supreme Court’s majority decision in the 2008 Barber v. Ritter “Fees aren’t really taxes” case — expanding the use of “fees” by government entities across the state as a means of evading constitutional protections against tax increases — carries the taint of self-interest.

Of course, the entity which reviews the constitutionality of the “fees” and “certificates of participation” used to finance the new judicial complex is that branch of government receiving the greatest benefit: the Colorado Supreme Court, at the pinnacle of the state judicial system, has the final word.

The Colorado Justice Center, far from being a tribute to transparency or honoring the memory of the man after whom it is named, stands as a monument to an imperial, unaccountable state judiciary.

Matt Arnold is the founder and executive director of Clear The Bench Colorado, a not-for-profit judicial accountability organization — www.clearthebenchcolorado.org.