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Members of the public pressed the Colorado Supreme Court for increased transparency in the attorney discipline process Wednesday as the judiciary faces allegations that top officials tried to cover up misconduct by judges.
The public hearing allowed anyone to give the justices feedback on numerous proposed changes to the attorney discipline process in Colorado, which is managed by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.
That agency received about 3,400 complaints in 2019, according to its annual report, and 276 of those complaints were referred out of the agency’s intake division for further investigation. In 2019, the agency took disciplinary action against attorneys 165 times, including 14 disbarments and 35 suspensions, according to the report.
Paul Chessin, an attorney who addressed the court during Wednesday’s hearing, argued that the justices should remove all references to “confidentiality” in the rules and instead establish that all disciplinary complaints and proceedings are public unless there is a compelling need for secrecy.
“Without transparency, there can be no accountability,” he said.
Justice Richard Gabriel disagreed with Chessin’s stance, he said during the hearing, because “many, many, many” complaints filed against attorneys are frivolous or filed by disgruntled clients.
“I have seen this — fortunately not against me, but this happens,” he said. Transparency is important, he said, but there should be some limitation on what complaints become public.
“I am concerned with this, unlimited, everything is open to the world (approach), because I fear the damage, reputationally, that it could do to very fine lawyers who did nothing wrong, and clients using it as a weapon against a lawyer,” Gabriel said.
Jessica Yates, who heads the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, also pushed back against Chessin’s call for transparency, saying confidentiality in the early stages of the complaint process encourages attorneys to work with the person who filed the complaint.
“If instead, it was a full-blown, public process, they might feel the need to defend themselves very vigorously instead of cooperating to get things resolved with a client,” she said.
Only five speakers addressed the court during Wednesday’s virtual hearing. One was Marilyn Runner, who said she had no confidence in the courts to be fair.
She referenced The Denver Post’s reporting on a $2.5 million contract that was allegedly given to a former top court administrator in order to keep secret details of judges’ misconduct, and said the alleged cover up “only further feeds the skepticism of the public.”
None of the justices responded to her remarks.