Legislator plans another try at making Colorado judicial branch subject to CORA

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

A Republican state lawmaker said she will try again during the 2017 legislative session to make Colorado’s judicial branch subject to the state’s open-records law.

“It’s just so interesting that one branch of government thinks they should be held to a different standard,” Rep. Polly Lawrence of Douglas County told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “We don’t let the executive branch write their own rules.”

Rep. Polly Lawrence

Rep. Polly Lawrence

The judicial branch is exempt from the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) because of two court rulings, including the Colorado Court of Appeals’ 2012 decision in Gleason v. Judicial Watch. Lawrence introduced legislation last session to remove that exemption, but her bill died on a party-line vote in a House committee controlled by Democrats.

The new proposal will be similar, Lawrence said. A main provision would make civil or internal investigative files on judicial department employees subject to public inspection once an investigation has been closed.

Internal investigative files on judicial branch employees are not available, except for the outcome of an investigation, under rules promulgated by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2015. But under CORA, internal files on the conduct of other public employees are presumed to be open, except for portions that contain highly personal or private information unrelated to work performance.

Lawrence expects that some of the same arguments used to defeat her 2016 bill will resurface this time around. During a committee hearing in April, a representative of the Colorado Bar Association argued that her proposal would violate the state Constitution because the Colorado Supreme Court makes rules governing the administration of the court system.

But Lawrence noted the Court of Appeals, in Gleason v. Judicial Watch, concluded that the legislature has the power to resolve such issues. “When the court realized that the judicial branch wasn’t subject to CORA, they specifically said, ‘unless the legislature acts,’” she said.

“It’s our job to write the laws,” Lawrence said. “It’s the judicial branch’s job to interpret the laws.”

Even though the Supreme Court’s rules for accessing the administrative records of the judicial branch resemble CORA to a large extent, Lawrence said the rules “don’t reach the standard that I think we should have … We’re supposed to be co-equal branches of government, and I believe transparency in government should be our highest goal.”

Rob McCallum, spokesman for the judicial branch, said his agency does not have a position on Lawrence’s proposal because it hasn’t been introduced yet.

In 2015, Lawrence tried to make the state public defender’s office subject to CORA. That bill also died in a House committee on a party-line vote.

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