AURORA | Far down next month’s ballot — below county races but above the constitutional amendments — voters will find more than a dozen judges standing for retention.
The elections, which gives the option of keeping a judge or removing them from the bench, rarely make headlines, but court observers say they are important nonetheless.
In Arapahoe County and Adams County, voters will see 16 judges on their ballot, including two State Supreme Court justices and two judges from the state court of appeals.
For each of the local judges, the State Commission on Judicial Performance, which evaluates judges with the help of local commissions, has recommended that voters opt to retain the seated judge. Statewide, the commission is recommending a vote against just three judges.
Kent J. Wagner, executive director of the commission, said that while the elections don’t garner a great deal of attention, he hopes voters take the time to research the various judges. The commission’s website includes links to biographies about local judges, as well as results of surveys of lawyers, witnesses and victims who appear before them.
“There is an awful lot of good information out there, particularly if they drill down in the surveys,” he said.
In some cases, the commission recommends a judge be retained even in cases where the bulk of lawyers who appeared in their courtroom recommend against retention. That is the case for Arapahoe County Court Judge Cheryl Rowles-Stokes, who came under fire last year when she jailed a Denver lawyer overnight for contempt. The lawyer has filed a lawsuit against her.
Wagner said the commission’s recommendations sometimes differ from the survey recommendations because they are based on a larger swath of information, including independent courtroom observations.
State law generally bars judges from actively campaigning for their seats, Wagner said.
But occasionally, local residents launch their own campaigns against a local judge.
That is happening this year in the retention election for Arapahoe County District Court Michelle Ann Amico.
A Colorado Springs-based committee called “Vote No For Judge Amico” has posted yard signs around Aurora urging voters not to retain the judge, who has been on the county bench since 2012.
The state commission recommends voters retain Amico and said she “is relatively new to the bench, and although she comes from a strong background in criminal law, she has made the transition well to hearing domestic cases. The Commission sees Judge Amico as a strong judge who is dedicated to learning and whose performance will only improve over time.” More than 75 percent of the lawyers surveyed also recommended keeping her.
Officials from the campaign against Amico did not return calls for comment this week, but according to state election records, they have raised more than $2,800.
Wagner said campaigns against a judge are rare and state law allows judges little leeway to respond to campaigns against them.
“It is hard to get to that level, so that’s why you don’t really see reactions from judges,” he said.
Matt Arnold director of Clear the Bench Colorado, an organization that encourages voters to study up on judicial elections, said the races deserve more scrutiny.
“This is a branch of government that really exercises a lot of power and a lot of authority over what other branches do,” he said.