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Denver Attorney Spearheads Grassroots Judicial Reform

Openly challenging judicial prerogatives isn’t a common trait in his profession, and political activism marks a new experience for him. But Denver attorney Chris Forsyth has stepped forward to lead an uphill battle to get a pair of judicial reform initiatives on the 2014 statewide ballot.

With only a small but growing team of volunteer petition circulators to aid the cause, Forsyth’s Clean Up the Courts campaign is focused on overcoming difficult odds and bringing two straightforward judicial reform measures before Colorado voters this fall.

“Our appellate court judges in particular have no respect for the selection and retention clause in state constitution. They think it’s meaningless,” he said. “And they have no respect for the ethics which they are supposed to abide by.”

Addressing Ethics and Retention

The so-called Honest Judge Amendment would restore the intent of the state constitution by giving the Independent Ethics Commission oversight of judicial discipline cases, rather than continuing the current system that lets judges write their own discipline rules.

The second proposal would require state judges to receive two-thirds of votes, rather than a simple majority, to be retained in office. A 2010 grassroots effort to recall liberal-leaning judges on the state supreme court, led by Clear the Bench Colorado, reduced retention support from roughly 75 percent in a typical election to about 60 percent. Under the newly proposed rules, that would have been enough to oust Justices Michael Bender, Alex Martinez, and Nancy Rice.

Each measure needs authenticated signatures from 86,105 Colorado voters, and must be submitted by August 4 to receive a formal ballot designation. As part of a broader judicial reform agenda, Forsyth believes the proposals represent a good first step toward improving the system.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done to correct this. The two initiatives I am proposing this year were — out of the mix — the two broadest, most effective strikes that you could make at the beginning to start to turn the situation around,” he said.

Finding Kindred Spirits

Forsyth’s interest in the cause of judicial reform grew out of years of his own work as an attorney on workmen’s compensation issues. Last summer he decided to take action. Shortly thereafter he started reaching out to groups for support, and began the process of drafting and revising ballot language.

The Secretary of State’s office approved the petition format on April 17. An estimated 30 volunteer circulators from Craig in northwest Colorado to Pueblo at the south end of the Front Range have joined Clean Up the Courts. While Forsyth describes himself as an unaffiliated voter with no strong political leanings or record of activism, he said he has found his strongest support from newfound kindred spirits in various “Tea Party and patriot groups.”

“It makes me feel good to know that there are other people out there like me who care about government and whether it complies with the Constitution, or is really representing the people,” said Forsyth. “Through this process they’ve really pulled on my heart strings, and actually, give me strength to go forward.”

Hearkening back to his roots growing up in a Kansas small town, the Denver attorney says he has grown to feel more comfortable around such “real people” than among colleagues in his profession. According to Forsyth, any support he has received from fellow attorneys has been much quieter.

“You have to understand, lawyers are afraid. I have lawyers that agree with me, but as my wife says, I lack a self-preservation gene,” he said. “They don’t want to make waves.”

Facing an Uphill Challenge

Forsyth recognizes that even getting the two initiatives on the ballot poses a significant challenge for a volunteer shoestring judicial reform effort. Rules enacted by the state legislature in recent years have made it more difficult to get signatures through the collection and authentication process. Provided the proposals can surmount that obstacle, he foresees a David versus Goliath showdown.

“I’m a grassroots effort, and big money is on the side of unethical judges,” he said. “I highly doubt I’m going to get big money to support such a commonsense accountability initiative.”

But Forsyth believes both issues can be readily grasped and appreciated by voters across a broad spectrum. He is earnestly on the lookout for like-minded and qualified volunteers throughout Colorado to help him reach his target goal of collecting 120,000 signatures by the end of July. Anyone who wants to pitch in can contact him through the Clean Up the Courts website.

Ben DeGrow

Ben DeGrow is co-editor of Watchdog Wire - Colorado. Contact him at Colorado@WatchdogWire.com to learn how to get involved with citizen journalism in the Boulder State. Follow him on Twitter: @bendegrow

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