Colorado’s governor has filled commission that determines who he appoints to state’s highest courts with Democrats, Democratic donors

A man at a podium looks up toward a table of judges

For nearly six decades, Colorado has tried to tamp down on the kind of partisan politics that shapes the federal court system by using judicial nominating commissions — made up of lawyers and nonlawyers with a mix of party affiliations — to select finalists for vacant judge jobs. 

The governor then chooses one of those finalists to serve on the bench.

But the governor also has the power to pick who sits on the judicial nominating commissions. And Gov. Jared Polis has filled the panel that helps determine who he places on the state’s two most powerful courts — the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals — with politically connected Democrats and unaffiliated voters who have donated to Democratic candidates and causes. 

Of the 10 judges Polis has placed on the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals since taking office in 2019, all but one is either a Democrat, a former Democrat or has been a donor to Democratic candidates and causes, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of state voter and campaign finance records.

One of Polis’ most recent appointments to the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission was Lisa Kaufmann, his former chief of staff and current senior adviser. Colorado Public Radio once described Kaufmann as the adviser the governor trusts “above all others.”

Polis has also appointed former U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democratic lawyer, to the commission, as well as Perlmutter’s former chief of staff, Danielle Radovich Piper.

The governor’s other Democratic appointees to the panel include Deborah Suniga, who served as the 1st vice chair of the Weld County Democratic Party, and Omar Montgomery, who ran unsuccessfully in 2019 to be Aurora’s mayor after serving as a local NAACP president. 

Under state law, the governor may appoint half of the 17 Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission’s members plus one more from the same political party. Nine of the members are currently Democrats. Each member serves a six-year term.

Four of the five unaffiliated members of the panel have donated to Democratic candidates and causes, according to a Sun analysis of campaign finance records. Three Republicans fill out the commission. 

Polis, a Democrat who is in his fifth year as governor, has now appointed 15 of the 17 members of the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission. The terms of the two commissioners Polis didn’t appoint will end Dec. 31, meaning that by the start of next year the governor will have appointed all of the panel’s members. 

The commission has eight lawyers and nine nonlawyers — one lawyer and one nonlawyer from each of the state’s eight congressional districts, as well as one at-large nonlawyer. Nonlawyer members are appointed solely by the governor, while lawyers on the panel are appointed jointly by the governor, attorney general and chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. 

Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser, declined to discuss how Weiser works with the governor and chief justice to pick members of the commission. (State law says appointments are made through a majority vote of the three.) 

“We cannot discuss conversations between the chief justice, governor and AG, or their process for selecting attorney members of the judicial nominating commissions,” Pacheco said in a written statement.

Judges can serve until they are 72, the state’s mandatory retirement age for members of the bench, as long as they are retained by voters. And it’s exceedingly rare that a judge isn’t retained. 

Republicans have complained that Polis and his predecessors — Democratic Govs. John Hickenlooper and Bill Ritter — have stacked the state’s courts with judges aligned with Democrats. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks at the Unlocking Pathways Summit, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at the Community College of Aurora. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Former state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Republican, recently said the Colorado GOP filed a lawsuit in federal court instead of state court to get around the Democratic influence on the bench. The lawsuit is challenging Colorado’s law letting unaffiliated voters cast ballots in partisan primaries.

“The governor ultimately makes the final decision on which judges will be selected,” he told fellow Republicans at an event about the lawsuit earlier this month. “And for the last 50 years, we’ve had eight years of a Republican governor.”

The governor’s office defended Polis’ appointments.

“The governor takes the responsibility of appointing boards and commissions seriously and is not interested in playing politics,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis. “These appointments represent distinguished public servants and thoughtful Coloradans, some of whom happen to be Republicans, some Democrats and some unaffiliated. Many of them have served our state for decades, and he trusts them to continue to serve the people of Colorado as they have throughout their careers and select excellent judicial candidates who will help make Colorado safer.”

The thinking behind Colorado’s system

Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1966 adopting the state’s judicial nominating commission system of selecting judges. Before the amendment, Colorado judges ran for office in partisan elections.

In the state’s ballot guide that year, one of the arguments for approving the change was that “the courts would be completely removed from politics.”

In other states, judges are chosen by the legislature (like in Virginia and South Carolina) or through elections, some partisan (like in Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania) and others nonpartisan (like in Nevada, Wisconsin and Kentucky).  

On the federal level, the president nominates someone to fill a spot on the bench and the U.S. Senate votes on whether to confirm. Republican President Donald Trump reshaped the federal judiciary through his nominations, and now Democratic President Joe Biden is making his mark on the courts. 

The political nature of how federal judges are selected can be messy, like how when Democratic President Barack Obama, at the end of his term, nominated Merrick Garland to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and then the Republican Senate blocked the nomination. Trump then filled the vacancy.

Federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, right, stands with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as he is introduced as Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court during an announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Jason Dunn, a Republican lawyer who previously served in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and as the state’s top federal prosecutor, said while Colorado’s system of using judicial nominating commissions is much different than the way judges are picked on the federal level, in practice, politics has always still played a role.

“Friends of governors or AGs tend to get appointed (to the commissions),” he said.

Christopher Jackson, a Colorado appellate lawyer, said the aim of the commission is to make judicial appointments based more on merit. 

“I don’t think I would say it was intended to take politics out of the system entirely,” he said of Colorado’s system. “But I think it is true that it is meant to moderate the influence that politics has in the process.”

Applicants for judicial vacancies in Colorado go through a rigorous screening process that includes interviews and a long questionnaire. They must share details of their political, financial and, if applicable, criminal histories. The work they did on previous cases is closely scrutinized.

The commission then selects three finalists for vacancies on the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals. The governor, in turn, appoints one of the finalists. 

Nominating commissions are also used to select judges in each of the state’s 22 judicial districts. 

“Nominating commissions serve … as the screening entity that identifies the list of final candidates for the governor,” said Brittany Kauffman, CEO of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver. She is unrelated to Lisa Kaufmann. “Their structure and composition must provide a climate that fosters public confidence in the process while encouraging highly qualified applicants to apply. They must not be a political or partisan entity and should be representative of the community to be served by the judge.”

Kauffman said about 30 states use nominating commissions to select judges. 

“Their approach to selection, composition and operation vary from state to state, but nominating commissions are all guided by the same principles of ensuring a highly qualified judiciary, promoting public trust in that judiciary and securing support for the judicial branch from the (executive and legislative) branches,” she said.

Who is on Polis’ commission

The four other Democrats on the commission include Katina Banks, a Denver lawyer who specializes in intellectual property rights and serves on the advisory council for an organization supporting LGBTQ youth.

There’s also Paul Wiggins, who holds two local Democratic leadership positions in El Paso County, as well as Jerome DeHerrera, a lawyer and longtime Democratic donor. And, finally, J. Martelle Daniels, serves on the panel. She’s a lawyer who formerly served on the nominating commission in the 21st Judicial District.

The commission is chaired by the chief justice of the state supreme court, though the chief justice isn’t a voting member of the panel.

Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court Brian D. Boatright, right, administers the oath of office to Governor Jared Polis, center, as first gentleman Marlon Reis stands by his side during inauguration day on January 10, 2023, in Denver. Boatright was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2011. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)

There are five unaffiliated members of the committee, and four of them have donated to Democratic causes and candidates in the past. 

Ageno Otii, who works as a senior program officer at the Colorado Health Foundation, has made three state-level political donations — all to Democrats. Otii gave $100 in 2022 to Wanda James’ campaign for University of Colorado regent, $50 in 2016 to Leslie Herod’s campaign to be a state representative and $100 in 2011 to Jessie Danielson as Danielson campaigned for a statehouse seat.

Peter Gould, a partner at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, donated $1,250 to Attorney General Phil Weiser’s 2022 reelection campaign and more than $1,000 to Cary Kennedy’s unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial bid. In 2014, Gould donated $100 to Republican Walker Stapleton’s campaign to be state treasurer, but also $50 that year to Voices for Choice Small Donor Committee, a group supporting abortion-rights candidates.

Marco Chayet, another unaffiliated lawyer on the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission, has been a frequent donor to Democrats in recent years. He gave $125 last year to state Rep. Emily Sirota’s reelection campaign, as well as $1,250 to Weiser’s reelection campaign.

R. Stanton Dodge, chief legal officer at DraftKings, the fantasy sports platform, is the most prolific political donor among the unaffiliated members of the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission. He’s given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic and Republican candidates on the state and federal level.

Dodge, who was appointed to the commission by Hickenlooper, gave $10,000 in 2018 to a group supporting Weiser’s attorney general bid. He also gave directly to Weiser’s 2018 and 2022 campaigns. Ahead of the 2022 election cycle, Dodge gave more than $3,000 to the Colorado Democratic Party. 

Dodge also donated $12,500 each in 2021 to four candidates who succeeded in a conservative takeover of the Douglas County School Board.

On the federal level, Dodge has given thousands of dollars this year to the reelection campaigns of Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in Montana and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette. He’s also donated this year to Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2024 reelection campaign.

Dodge’s term on the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission ends Dec. 31.

Colorado Court of Appeals courtroom.
At the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, on the first floor, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Jeffrey Beall, via Flickr)

There is no record of unaffiliated Commissioner Kevin Mullin, president of the Estes Park Health Foundation, giving to state- or federal-level political candidates.

Of the three Republicans on the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission, Polis’ latest appointee is former Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, who now is a shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a powerful Denver-based law and lobbying firm. Suthers, a former Colorado attorney general and U.S. attorney, focuses on government relations and state attorneys general matters for the firm. 

The other two Republicans are:

  • Heather Lipp, who was appointed to the commission by Hickenlooper. Her term ends Dec. 31. Lipp is the chief financial officer for AllCloud, a tech company.
  • Linda Garcia of Pueblo, Polis’ only other Republican appointee to the panel. She is a nonlawyer. 

Which judges Polis has appointed

Polis has appointed only one justice to the Colorado Supreme Court: Maria E. Berkenkotter, in November 2020.

A search of state and federal campaign finance records indicates she’s never donated to a federal candidate and hasn’t donated to a state level candidate in about 30 years — if ever. She is, however, registered as a Democrat, according to state voter records.

Of the nine judges Polis has appointed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, six have donated to state-level Democratic candidates or causes in the past, according to a Sun analysis of campaign finance data. 

A breakdown of the donations made by Polis’ appointees: 

  • Judge Neeti V. Pawar gave $250 to Hickenlooper’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, $25 to Democrat Melissa Hart’s University of Colorado regent campaign in 2010 and $35 in 2017 to a Voices for Choice, the group supporting candidates who back abortion rights. Hart is now a Colorado Supreme Court justice. Pawar is an unaffiliated voter now but was previously registered as a Democrat.
  • Judge Jaclyn Casey Brown donated $200 to Hickenlooper’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign. She is registered as a Democrat.
  • Judge Sueanna P. Johnson gave $100 to Polis gubernatorial campaign in 2018, as well as $60 that year to the campaign fund run by then-House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat. She is now registered as an unaffiliated voter but was previously registered as a Democrat.
  • Judge David H. Yun donated $100 to Democrat Brad Levin, a candidate for attorney general, in 2017. Yun is registered as a Democrat.
  • Judge Karl L. Schock donated $50 in 2010 to a committee attempting to draft then-Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett  to run for attorney general. He gave $200 to Weiser’s campaign for attorney general in 2018, and $150 to Democrat Brian Mason’s 2020 campaign to be the district attorney in Adams County. Schock is registered as a Democrat.
  • Judge Katharine Lum gave about $1,000 in 2021 to the reelection campaign of Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. Lum was appointed by Polis in September 2022. She is registered as a Democrat.
Colorado Supreme Court Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Of the three judges appointed to the Colorado Court of Appeals by Polis who haven’t donated to Democratic candidates and causes, one of them — Judge W. Eric Kuhn — is registered as a Democrat. Another, Judge Christina Gomez, is an unaffiliated voter but was previously registered as a Democrat. 

Judge Timothy Schutz, appointed by Polis to the Court of Appeals, is unaffiliated.

There are 22 judges on the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Who was on past Colorado governor’s commissions 

Hickenlooper and Ritter exercised their right to appoint Democrats to make up at least half of their Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commissions. 

Dick Celeste, was arguably the most politically connected member of their commissions. (He served on the panel under both governors, but was appointed by Ritter.) 

Celeste, a Democrat, was governor of Ohio before serving as the U.S. ambassador to India and ending his career as president of Colorado College in Colorado Springs. 

Under Hickenlooper, the commission included Jim Carpenter, who served as Ritter’s chief of staff, as well as Daniel Ramos, who worked at One Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ rights. Carpenter and Ramos are Democrats.

Hickenlooper also appointed Tracee Bentley to his commission, a Republican who was at one point his legislative director.

Melissa Hart, a University of Colorado law professor, right, smiles as she is introduced as the newest member of the Colorado Supreme Court by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2017, during a news conference in the State Capitol in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Ritter appointed several politically connected Democrats to his Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission, including Romaine Pacheco a Democrat who worked for the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, and for U.S. Sens. Ken Salazar and Michael Bennet. 

GOP Gov. Bill Owens filled his commission with politically connected Republicans.

His panel included Lynn Ann Johnson, who prior to her appointment to the commission in 2006 was chief of staff for Owens’ lieutenant governor, Jane Norton. Johnson also served as a policy adviser for Owens and went on to be the Assistant Secretary for Family Support at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under former President Donald Trump.

Also on Owens’ commission were Republican Bill Kaufman, a former state representative and chair of the Larimer County GOP, and Ralph Nagel, whom The Denver Post described as “an Owens friend” and “Republican donor.” (Kaufman is not related to Lisa Kaufmann or Brittany Kauffman.)

Prior commissioners say the panel doesn’t operate in a partisan way

Past members of the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission say that even if some members of the panel have partisan or highly political backgrounds, those interests don’t play out in deliberations about who should be named finalists for open positions on the bench. 

“It surprised me that politics did not play a role,” said Ramos, who served on the commission from 2017 to 2022 after being appointed by Hickenlooper. 

Ramos said members of the commission left partisanship at the door and evaluated judicial candidates based on their experience.

“My time on the commission was all about preserving the unique system that we have,” he said. 

The Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center is seen on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Carpenter, who in addition to serving as chief of staff for Ritter also ran Democrat Ken Salazar’s successful 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, said it makes sense that Polis has appointed trusted advisers — like Lisa Kaufmann — to the commission. 

“Governors want people they trust on these things,” he said. “Lisa is an excellent judge of character. You need citizen members who also can be active and not intimidated by the lawyer members who are there. I think there’s a long history of people who have been on governors’ staffs on the nominating commission.”

He said the commissions have always been made up of “prominent, active people.”

And Carpenter shares the opinion that partisanship gets checked at the door.

“When you’re in that room and you’re doing deliberations, partisanship doesn’t come into it,” he said. 

Colorado Sun staff writers Sandra Fish and Elliott Wenzler contributed to this report.

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