AURORA | Gov. Jared Polis last month signed a bill that will bring a pair of new judges to the two judicial districts that cover Aurora.
The new law, formerly known as Senate Bill 43, allocates funding for one new district court judge in the 18th Judicial District, which covers Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, and another judge in the 17th Judicial District, which covers Adams County.
The new jurists will bring the total number of judges in the 17th Judicial District to 16. The 18th Judicial District will now have 24 district court judges.
The bill provides dollars for salaries — about $168,000 annually per judge — for a total of 15 judges in 10 Judicial Districts across the state. With each of those new judges will come a new court clerk, law clerk and court reporter.
The state will use about $7.4 million from the general fund to cover the initial costs of the some 54 new court workers the bill calls for this year and next. About 30 more workers slated to be added next year and in 2021 will bring the annual cost to about $8.3 million.
Each of Aurora’s judicial districts will also get a new public defender and access to support staff. The State Office of the Public Defender will get a total of about 20 new employees and $1.7 million — included as part of the aforementioned totals — a year from the new appropriations starting in 2020.
The new law will take effect in both local jurisdictions serving Aurora early next year. About half of the new judges slated to be added across the state will begin work in July.
The new judge in the 18th Judicial District, which also covers Elbert and Lincoln Counties, is tentatively expected to take over a criminal docket in a vacant courtroom in Douglas County, according to Shaun Clark, district administrator.
“That’s where the biggest need in the entire district is right now,” Clark said.
George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, said the population, and in turn crime, has proliferated in Douglas County in recent years.
“When this judicial district was created 55 years ago, it was entirely different,” he said. “Douglas County has since exploded.”
The population of Douglas County has risen from about 50,000 people in the late 1980s to nearly 360,000 people at the beginning of the year, according to county data and the Colorado Regional Economic Analysis Project. By contrast, Arapahoe County had about as many residents as Douglas County has now in the late 1980s. The population in Arapahoe County has since nearly doubled.
A proposal that would have split the vast 18th Judicial District into two jurisdictions, granting the state its first new judicial district in decades, was pulled by its own sponsor, Aurora Democrat Mike Weissman, early in the legislative session.
Brauchler, who largely agreed with the rationale behind Weissman’s failed measure, said felony case filings in the 18th Judicial District have increased by about 45 percent since he was elected in 2012.
“Looking at the number of felonies filed statewide and the increase in that since I’ve been in office, the need for new judicial officers is undeniable,” he said.
Still, Brauchler said the recently signed law funding additional judges saddles counties with new expenses.
”When the state appropriates state dollars for a new judge and state staff, it creates an unfunded mandate,” he said. “To suggest that it’s all roses is not actually accurate because this is going to create an extra expense on every single judicial district that has a new judge.”
Four county staffers — two deputy district attorneys, a support staffer and a sheriff’s deputy — will also be added to the new courtrooms across the state, according to the bill’s fiscal note. Each district attorney will cost the counties about $100,000, the support staff will tally $70,000 and sheriff’s deputies will cost about $85,000.
More than new judges and legal staff, Brauchler said the 18th Judicial District needs a new justice center and jail to improve the local criminal process.
He said local officials are gauging the appetite for a referred “justice tax” that would fund such a project.
The Arapahoe County Justice Center is about 30 years old, according to county data. The facility’s jail is about the same age, but has quadrupled in capacity over the years thanks to various improvement projects.
The 18th Judicial District last received funding for a pair of new judges in 2014, according to Jon Sarche, spokesman for the state Judicial Department. The 17th Judicial District last got a new judge in 2009.
In the latter district, the question of where a new judge and court staffers may be assigned is murkier, according to Jess Redman, assistant district attorney for the 17th Judicial District.
“It’s hard for me to answer where a new judge would go, but you’ll see that across the board: space is limited,” Redman said.
The 17th Judicial District faces a heightened degree of uncertainty regarding its new judge as the district’s current chief judge, Patrick Murphy, is retiring from the bench this summer. A pair of other upcoming bench vacancies in Adams County means judgeships in the region will remain uncertain until a nominating commission chooses replacements later this spring.
The additional judges afforded by the new law will also be hired via the standard process in the coming months: nominations will be made by a local commission before a final selection is approved by the governor.
Redman said how the new chief judge in the 17th decides to use the newly funded judge next year could shift how the district attorney’s office staffs its various divisions and moves through cases. Currently, the local DA has five attorneys working in five divisions.
Redman said the fluidity of his district’s bench means he doesn’t know what kind of docket a new judge could be assigned, or whether the new jurist would work at the Adams County Justice Center in Brighton or a courtroom in Broomfield.
“If it were to be a criminal docket, of course it would impact us insofar as we have to staff it,” he said. “ … We’ll just have to adjust.”