The start to a new legislative session has reignited plans to split up the state's fastest-growing and most populous judicial district — the 18th Judicial District. Or, what one lawmaker called a …
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• Arapahoe County: 651,215
• Douglas County: 342,776
• Elbert County: 26,282
• Lincoln County: 5,610
Source: U.S. Census Bureau's estimated figures as of July 2018
Population of some Front Range judicial districts:
• 18th Judicial District (Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, Lincoln) — 1.026 million
• 4th Judicial District (El Paso, Teller) — 738,939
• 2nd Judicial District (Denver) — 716,492
• 1st Judicial District (Jefferson, Gilpin) — 586,354
• 17th Judicial District (Adams, Broomfield) — 581,135
Source: Combined county populations from U.S. Census Bureau's estimated July 2018 figures
The start to a new legislative session has reignited plans to split up the state's fastest-growing and most populous judicial district — the 18th Judicial District. Or, what one lawmaker called a “monstrous” chunk of Colorado crammed under a single district's oversight.
In short, lawmakers say the district is pressured by rapid population growth and increasingly diverse communities with different individual needs.
“It has become monstrous, so to speak. Just a very large judicial district compared to all the others,” said State Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, a bill sponsor.
Colorado state lawmakers on Jan. 8 introduced House Bill 20-1026, which would create a 23rd Judicial District by splitting the 18th in two. The district today serves more than 1 million people and comprises Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. The next largest, Colorado's 4th Judicial District, serves fewer than 750,000 people.
If passed, the bill would leave Arapahoe County in the 18th Judicial District and place the remaining three counties into another, creating Colorado's newest judicial district in decades.
The state has operated 22 judicial districts for the past five decades despite growing in population by more than 3.5 million people in that same time, the bill states. Colorado had four districts at statehood.
Creating a 23rd requires a two-thirds vote by the general assembly. State Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, considered introducing similar legislation last session and is one of the bill sponsors. It's scheduled to go before the House Judiciary Committee, on which he sits, this month. State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and state. Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, also are sponsoring the legislation.
“Grateful to have bipartisan support in both chambers,” Weissman said. “I think it's a recognition that there's some good sense in the bill.”
A 'unique' district
Van Winkle said putting Arapahoe County — which has a population of roughly 650,000 people — into its own district and leaving Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln in another will allow the counties to customize a district to their local needs. Particularly as Arapahoe and Douglas have created a “somewhat separate culture and political trend,” he said.
“The voters of each Douglas and Arapahoe county should be able to elect a district attorney that reflects their hometown values,” Van Winkle said.
More than 104,000 of Douglas County's 261,399 registered voters are Republican, compared to 50,636 Democrats. Of Arapahoe County's 434,029 registered voters, 140,098 are Democrats compared to 107,538 Republicans.
For 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, a Republican, ideological differences alone aren't good enough reason to split the district. Redistricting can make a significant difference for hot-button issues, he said, naming the death penalty as an example. Every person on death row in Colorado comes from the 18th Judicial District.
"I think there are people out there who want to upend the criminal justice system," he said. "What's the best way to do that? Change out who the decision maker is."
Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties all lean Republican while Arapahoe County voters have supported Democratic candidates in recent election cycles, he said. Placing Arapahoe County into its own district could open the door to electing a district attorney who opposes the death penalty, although capital punishment could be repealed altogether if Senate Bill 20-100 is successful.
"If we're going to the point of, how to draw district attorney lines merely or purely to accomodate political interests, I think we're making a huge mistake," he said.
That's not the case with the bill to create a 23rd district, he said. To Brauchler, the 18th's growth and some budgetary concerns add legitimate reasons to consider redistricting it now.
"Where else do you see a multi-county jurisdiction where one of the counties has exploded the way Douglas has?" he asked.
The county's population has more than doubled since the 2010 Census, according to Douglas County's population estimates from January 2019.
Brauchler said he supports the bill, although he believes the judicial district could continue operating "in its current configuration."
"I think it's probably something that is overdue and important for this jurisdiction, but really only this jurisdiction," Brauchler said. "We're so unique and we've grown in such a unique way."
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas said splitting up the districts would give counties the freedom to create specialty courts needed at the local level. Her priority is mental health courts.
Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Sharpe said the county supports the bill, but officials will keep a close eye on impacts to the county budget.
'Things have changed'
If passed, both the 18th and 23rd districts would elect their own district attorney in November 2024. The winner would assume office in January 2025, also when the 23rd is planned to be up and running. The change needs to revolve around district attorney elections, Weissman said, which take place every four years in conjunction with the presidential election.
Weissman noted judicial districts are typically set up in one of three ways.
The first approach is letting a populous county comprise its own judicial district, like Boulder or Denver. The second is pairing one populous county with smaller ones, and the final is clustering rural or less populous counties together.
“The 18th is the only district that consists of two of the most populous and fastest-growing counties in the state,” Weissman said.
Thomas said she's eager to see the bill passed.
“Things have changed. Populations have changed. The needs of the communities have changed, and by getting this done, Arapahoe County will be better able to focus on the needs of their community and our three counties can really focus on our needs. Which is huge,” Thomas said.
Van Winkle commended Brauchler, a Parker Republican, for his management of the diverse district.
“He has some extremely rural parts in the district, in terms of Elbert and Lincoln counties. He has Douglas, which is mixed, and of course pieces of Aurora and all of Arapahoe County,” Van Winkle said.
Brauchler, who was elected in 2012, is serving the final year of his second term as DA and cannot seek reelection in the district. District attorneys are allowed to take a term off and then run for election again, a spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office said.
Brauchler has not ruled out a run for district attorney in 2024 or a future political career, but he's not sure what his plans are once his term ends this year.
"I'm not being coy here when I say I don't know," Brauchler said. "I think I've got a lot more in the tank to give to the community. I just don't know what that looks like yet."
Brauchler stressed a judicial hasn't been created since the 1960s. Setting up a new district will be difficult.
"There's no playbook for this," he said.
The bill requires the judicial department to report its progress in creating the new district, with input from the counties, at hearings held under the State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive and Transparent (SMART) Government Act.
During those, departments present performance plans that detail their operations and budget requests to the Joint Committees of Reference.
“There really has to be ongoing attention to the transition process,” Weissman said. “We can't pass a bill and forget it.”
A final report is due at the hearings in 2026 detailing the entire transition process.
The report must address what went well in creating the new district and what aspects of the transition caused trouble. Plus, recommendations to legislators for smoothing the process for future changes to judicial districts.
“So, the next time a judicial district needs to be created, we already know what that wheel looks like. That district isn't going to have to recreate a new wheel,” Thomas said.
The department is required to budget for any costs associated with creating the district through the 2025 fiscal year.
The SMART hearings, or oversight of the transition, are crucial in Arapahoe County's stance on the bill, Sharpe said. Arapahoe's support is "contingent upon the financial interests of our constituents being protected by the bill," she said, and ensuring the transition is well-planned.
The county's revenue is limited by TABOR, and officials anticipate one day outgrowing the county's justice center. That could mean needing more courtrooms, judges, support staff and space. The county appreciates having four years to prepare for a new district, so it can learn more about impacts to the county and prepare, Sharpe said, including the financial impact.
"Those are all things that we have been talking about, not only with our jail but with our justice center," she said.
Costs associated with setting up a new district remain unknown, Van Winkle, Weismann, Sharpe and Thomas said.
Thomas doubts expenses will incur before 2023 or 2024. Van Winkle said they should be minimal. Weissman believes allowing ample time to set up a new district will spread costs over several years, making them easier to absorb.
“We're giving kind of a long glide path, a long landing slope,” Van Winkle said.
Years in the works
Talks about dividing the district have gone on for years, but plans swung into full motion in the 2019 legislative session as Weissman carefully considered introducing a similar bill.
“It's something that I have been thinking about for years, just reflecting on the large population of the current 18th, the fact that it's growing quickly,” Weissman said.
Growing interest from prospective bill sponsors and local officials caught his attention last year, he said. But Weissman changed course following a Jan. 30, 2019 meeting with various stakeholders, including county commissioners and judicial department staff.
Douglas County commissioners urged swift action to alleviate pressures on the district, particularly with a 2020 election around the corner, what would have been the next opportunity to elect a 23rd district attorney.
A memo from the office of then Secretary of State Wayne Williams stressed if a bill wasn't introduced in 2019, a new district attorney wouldn't likely be elected until 2024. Any bill introduced after 2019 wouldn't leave enough time for district attorney candidates to get on the ballot, according to the memo.
Thomas helped spearhead the county's efforts to split the judicial district in 2019.
The county compiled a report finding it was paying roughly 33% of district costs while accounting for less than 25% of felony crimes. About 81% of serious felonies and 70% of all felonies were occurring in Arapahoe County. Counties' contribution to the budget is based on population, but felony crimes require more resources and manpower.
Brauchler said it's fair for the counties to question the cost-sharing and if Douglas has been subsidizing Arapahoe's crime, but he wondered how Arapahoe County will make up for the budget shortfall as its own judicial district.
"That's going to be tough," he said.
Not everyone urged immediate action. Arapahoe County commissioners pleaded with stakeholders in the January 2019 stakeholder meeting to slow down.
Waiting for 2024 would provide an adequate study period to figure out how to set up a new district, they said, and how to fund the transition. Weissman, heeding those warnings, decided against introducing a 2019 bill at the meeting's end.
“It became clear that was too much too quickly,” he said.
Weissman didn't stop working on the issue after deciding against 2019 legislation.
“I've had a lot of conversations over the last year,” he said.
Talks with the four counties, the state judicial department, public defenders and district attorneys informed the bill, he said.
Thomas initially preferred passing a bill in 2019 so that new district attorneys could be elected in 2020. She was excited by the prospect of splitting the district, and confident it would be good for her community, she said.
Now, Thomas says she's grateful they have four years to take on the task, should the Legislature pass the bill. She understands the desire to take a transition slow and do it well, she said.
“Let's face it,” Thomas said. “No. 1, we are creating history here.”
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