The Colorado Lawyers Committee makes every effort to find solutions to issues without the need for litigation. Sometimes, this informal approach is not successful. Below are some of our recent cases; you can also see all of our highlights from the past 40 years.
Jail Wait Litigation
Center for Legal Advocacy v. Bicha
For 11 years, Colorado Lawyers Committee volunteers have been litigating against the Colorado Department of Human Services on behalf of thousands of individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities who have waited or are waiting in Colorado jails for unconscionable amounts of time to be evaluated for competency to proceed to hearing/trial or to receive court ordered competency restoration. These individuals cannot proceed with defending the criminal accusations against them, until they are evaluated and/or receive treatment so they can participate in their criminal cases. As a result, they end up being warehoused in jails, deteriorating, without care; many are held in jail far longer than any sentence would have been imposed on them (if any). The Colorado Department of Human Services’ failure to timely provide these services is a violation of Colorado Law and the United States Constitution.
In July 2016, the plaintiffs reached a (second) settlement requiring the State to evaluate individuals for competency held in the county jails within 30 days of receipt of the court order and essential police reports, and if found incompetent, to admit the patients for restoration treatment within 28 days of receipt of the order. Since June 2017, the State has been out of compliance with the timeframes, and more than a thousand people have waited in jails as long as six months to receive court-ordered restoration treatment. In June 2018, the plaintiffs filed a motion in federal court to re-open the settlement agreement.
In November 2018, the Court found the State in breach of the agreement and out of compliance since June 2017. As one remedy for the breach, the Court appointed a Special Master in December 2018 to oversee the State’s plan for compliance and provide the Court and parties with a comprehensive plan for long-term compliance. Plaintiffs sent the State eleven non-negotiable conditions to cease litigation and attempt to mediate. The parties are headed to mediation. If a Consent Decree is not signed by the parties by mid-March 2019, the case will proceed to hearing in June 2019.
Civil Rights/Land Rights
Lobato v. Taylor
The Taylor Ranch litigation (Lobato v. Taylor) involves the right of landowners in the San Luis Valley to access a 77,500-acre mountainous parcel known as the Taylor Ranch. This right was created in the mid-1800’s when settlers on the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, then a part of Mexico, were promised access to the mountainous regions near their homes for uses necessary for their survival. More than 100 years later, Jack Taylor purchased and fenced off the land.
The Lawyers Committee has been active in this litigation for the past 20 years and has successfully obtained rights for landowners entitled to access the property (after a 2003 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the rights of plaintiff property owners). To date, the District Court has examined title to thousands of parcels of land and found that all but a few parcels are entitled to access Taylor Ranch.
In 2016, the team successfully challenged an attempt by the owners of Taylor Ranch to cut off yet-to-be-identified landowners’ rights through notice by publication and persuaded the Court to certify its prior rulings as final, while leaving the case open for any future landowners to make access claims. In 2018, the ranch owner filed an appeal (the third time the case was before the Colorado Court of Appeals). The Court issued a 90-page opinion rejecting the ranch owner’s efforts to limit the rights of the landowners and remanded the case back to the trial court to finish identifying landowners with rights.
The ranch owner decided not to appeal the Colorado Court of Appeals decision, virtually ending the legal battle over the most significant issues that have been the subject of litigation for almost 40 years. The parties are now in mediation in the hopes of creating a land-use agreement regarding the ranch
Colorado Criminal Defense Bar v. Hickenlooper
On December 2, 2010, members of the Colorado Lawyers Committee’s Sixth Amendment Task Force filed a lawsuit in federal district court, on behalf of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar Association. The suit challenged the constitutionality of a Colorado statute requiring misdemeanor defendants to meet with the prosecutor before counsel was appointed. (During this meeting, the prosecutor often engages the defendant in plea discussions, and many defendants agree to a plea agreement without requesting or benefiting from the appointment of counsel.) The State responded with two Motions to Dismiss, one for failure to name necessary defendants, the other for lack of standing.
The Task Force filed an Amended Complaint in February 2011 and a second one in January 2012, and continued to litigate this effort until a team of legislators took on the issue. In the 2013 regular legislative session, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees considered House Bill 13-1210 to repeal the statute. The bill was approved by both Committees; the Appropriations Committee subsequently set aside approximately $8 million to hire additional Public Defenders to represent indigent clients in these matters.
In May 2013, Governor Hickenlooper signed House Bill 13-1210, officially removing the requirement that misdemeanor defendants confer with a prosecutor before legal counsel is appointed, resolving all the claims in the lawsuit, and on May 30, 2013, Judge Kane dismissed the case. Congratulations to the 26 volunteers for their hard work over several years- their efforts were instrumental in bringing this constitutional issue to the legislative table and protecting the rights of defendants in all criminal matters.
Ensuring Proper Benefits Processing
More than 10 years ago, Colorado implemented a new computer system to streamline the processing of public benefits, the Computer Benefit Management System (CBMS). From the beginning, the new system improperly denied or delayed essential public benefits, resulting in serious and life-threatening problems for Colorado citizens. In 2004, members of the Task Force obtained a court order requiring the State to substantially improve benefits processing, and the case was subsequently settled. After many years of compliance monitoring and working with state officials to ensure allocation of sufficient resources for benefits processing, the CBMS task force is proud to report that in 2016 the State finally met the compliance standards set forth under federal law and the terms of the court-monitored settlement. The State is finally devoting adequate resources to improve application processing for essential public benefits, and the litigation has been dismissed.
Lobato v. State
This lawsuit, originally filed in June 2005, on behalf of various school districts, children and parents across the state, against the State of Colorado, the State Board of education, the State Commissioner of Education, and the Governor, challenged the constitutionality of the Colorado school finance system. The case was dismissed by the trial court; the dismissal was affirmed by the Colorado Court of Appeals and subsequently reversed by the by the Colorado Supreme Court in October 2009. The Supreme Court held that the judiciary has the responsibility to review public school funding to determine whether the system is “rationally related to the General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education” and remanded the case to the trial court. After a five-week trial in August 2011, the trial court ruled that Colorado’s low financing of K-12 education is unconscionable and does not meet the “thorough and uniform” requirement of the Colorado Constitution.
In 2012, the State appealed the trial court decision, and the Lobato team filed its response; several amici briefs also were filed in support of both sides. The Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 7, 2013. The courtroom was packed with attorneys, students and the media; two overflow rooms and online streaming were necessary to accommodate all those interested in the proceedings. On May 28, 2013, in a 4-2 vote, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion, reversing the trial court decision, holding that Colorado’s school finance system is rationally related to the ‘thorough and uniform’ standard of the state Constitution, despite not “provid[ing] an optimal amount of money to the public schools.” Regardless of the outcome of this long battle, we sincerely thank all of the volunteers who tirelessly worked on this case for so many years- their work was critical in bringing the state of education to the attention of so many.
McDaniel-Miccio v. Colorado
At the beginning of 2014, 19 states in the U.S. recognized the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. Colorado was not one of them. Volunteer attorneys from Reilly Pozner LLP, led by John McHugh, Law of the Rockies, and Gutterman Griffiths PC have helped change that statistic. Their case, McDaniel-Miccio v. Colorado, along with a consolidated case, Brinkman v. Long (filed by Anne Wilcox, Ralph Ogden and Professor Tom Russell), kicked off an avalanche of marriage equality litigation in Colorado. A similar case was filed in federal court by the lawyers at Killmer Lane & Newman, LLP. These cases eventually secured marriage equality for LGBT families in our state.