Law and government of Colorado

Law and government of Colorado

The Constitution of the State of Colorado provides for three branches of government: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial branches.[1]


Sovereignty of the people

Article II of the Constitution of Colorado enacted August 1, 1876, the Bill of Rights, provides:

Section 1. Vestment of political power. All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government, of right, originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.[2][3]

Section 2. People may alter or abolish form of government − proviso. The people of this state have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves, as a free, sovereign and independent state; and to alter and abolish their constitution and form of government whenever they may deem it necessary to their safety and happiness, provided, such change be not repugnant to the constitution of the United States.[2][4]

Initiative, referendum, and recall

In addition to providing for voting[5][6] the people of Colorado have reserved initiative of laws and referendum of laws enacted by the legislature to themselves[7][8]

...the people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and amendments to the constitution and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the general assembly and also reserve power at their own option to approve or reject at the polls any act or item, section, or part of any act of the general assembly.[9]

and provided for recall of office holders.[10]


The legislative body is the Colorado General Assembly made up of two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Members of the House are elected for two year terms from single member, equal population districts. Approximately half of the members of the state senate are elected each two years to four year terms from single member, equal population districts. The House of Representatives has 65 members and the Senate has 35.

Currently, Democrats are in control of both chambers of the General Assembly. The 64th Colorado General Assembly is the first to be controlled by the Democrats in forty years. The current Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives is Terrance Carroll (D-Denver), and the current President of the Colorado Senate is Peter Groff (D-Denver).


The Governor of Colorado heads the state's executive branch. The current governor is John Hickenlooper (D). Colorado's other statewide elected executive officers are the Lieutenant Governor of Colorado (elected on a ticket with the Governor), Secretary of State of Colorado, Colorado State Treasurer, and Attorney General of Colorado, all of whom serve four-year terms.

There are also elected members of the Colorado State Board of Education and the Regents of the University of Colorado are elected from districts coterminous with Colorado's congressional districts or at large. As a result, the Governor does not have direct management authority over either the Department of Education or any of the state's institutions of higher education.

Most crimes in Colorado are prosecuted by a district attorney. One district attorney is elected for each of the state's 22 judicial districts in a partisan election. The state attorney general also has power to prosecute certain crimes, and in rare circumstances a special prosecutor may be appointed to prosecute a crime on a case by case basis. Municipal ordinance violations are prosecuted by city attorneys.

The executive branch of Colorado state government comprises 19 departments:


Colorado Supreme Court

The judicial branch is headed by the Colorado Supreme Court, the state supreme court. In addition to its role as the state's highest appellate court, the Colorado Supreme Court supervises the state court system and the state's lawyers. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice (currently Mary Mullarkey) and six associate justices.

Colorado Court of Appeals

The Colorado Court of Appeals is the state intermediate appellate court.

Colorado District Courts, Denver Probate Court, and Denver Juvenile Court

The Colorado District Courts are the state trial courts of general jurisdiction. There are 22 judicial districts in the state, which include one or more of Colorado's 64 counties. They have original jurisdiction in civil cases with any amount in controversy; felony criminal cases, domestic relations, family law, and cases involving minors cases (including adoption, dependency, juvenile delinquency, and paternity actions), probate, and mental health cases. Court filings in District Court generally indicate the county within the district in which the action is filed and the District Court generally conducts proceedings in that action in that county.

Uniquely, within the City and County of Denver, a consolidated city–county, the Denver Probate Court and the Denver Juvenile Court have jurisdiction over probate and juvenile matters respectively. Outside Denver, these matters are within the jurisdiction of the District Courts.

Colorado Water Courts

The state's seven Colorado Water Courts have exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over adjudications of water rights. Established in 1969, there are seven Water Courts in each of Colorado's seven major river basins: South Platte, Arkansas, Rio Grande, Gunnison, Colorado, White, and San Juan. The Water Courts are divisions of the District Courts in that basin and use the District Court's accessories, and water judges are District Court judges appointed by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Colorado County Courts

Colorado County Courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. There is one County Court in each of the 64 counties, including the consolidated city-counties of Denver and Broomfield. They hear misdemeanor cases, preliminary hearings in felony cases, evictions, civil cases not involving ownership of real property with an amount in controversy up to $15,000, and several other narrowly defined types of cases such as name changes and temporary restraining orders. There is one county court in each of Colorado's counties.

Municipal courts

In some municipalities of Colorado there are municipal courts, which are not part of the state court system. These courts may hear only cases of local ordinance violations with punishments no more severe than misdemeanor offenses. In Denver, county courts and municipal courts are integrated and are not part of the state court system for administrative purposes. Some municipal courts are courts of record which can impose greater sanctions for ordinance violations and are subject to appellate review in a manner similar to state courts. Other municipal courts are courts not of record, which can impose only less severe sanctions for ordinance violations, whose decisions are appealed through trials de novo in the appellate court. A small number of municipal courts in Colorado have been granted civil jurisdiction in certain ordinance cases, such as cases involving land use, under municipal home rule powers, in addition to quasi-criminal jurisdiction.

Appellate procedure courts

With certain exceptions, appeals of right from Districts Courts, the Denver Probate Court and the Denver Juvenile Court are to the Colorado Court of Appeals. There are certain exceptions, in which an appeal of right lies directly to the Colorado Supreme Court. The include capital punishment cases, cases where a law is found to be unconstitutional by a District Court, Water Court cases and discretionary review following county or municipal court appeals of right. The Colorado Court of Appeals also has jurisdiction over appeals directly from certain state administrative bodies.

Most appeals from County Courts, municipal courts and quasi-judicial local decision making bodies are made to a District Court. All appeals other than appeals of right, including most appeals prior to a final judgment in civil cases, are to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Supervision of convicted criminals on probation is a responsibility of the judicial branch. Jails for individuals awaiting convention or sentencing, convicted of misdemeanors, petty offenses or ordinance violations, and for convicted felons awaiting transfers to state prison, are operated by county sheriffs. Prisons for adults and supervision of individuals on parole is the responsibility of the state government through the state department of corrections. Incarceration of juvenile and certain mentally ill offenders are also the responsibility of the state government.

Judicial selection and retention

When vacancies occurs on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, District Court, or County Court, a judicial nominating commission recommends to the governor three (for appellate courts) and two or three (for trial courts) qualified candidates to fill the vacancy. The governor appoint a judge from the commission's list. The supreme court nominating commission recommends candidates to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and is composed of 15 members: The chief justice (as non-voting chair), one lawyer from each of the state's seven congressional districts, and one non-lawyer from each congressional district.

For the District Courts and County Courts, judicial district nominating commission in each of the 22 judicial districts recommend candidates. For each one, a supreme court justice serves as a non-voting chair and the remainder of the committee includes seven residents of the judicial district. In districts with populations greater than 35,000, there are three lawyer and four non-lawyer members. In districts with populations less than 35,000, at least four members are non-lawyers, and it is determined by majority vote of the governor, attorney general, and chief justice how many members will be lawyers.

Commission members serve six-year terms. The non-lawyers on each commission, are appointed by the governor. while the lawyer members are appointed by joint action of the governor, attorney general, and chief justice.

Denver County Court judges are appointed by the mayor from choices presented by a blue ribbon merit selection committee, and subject to retention elections in the same manner as state court system county court judges.

After two years in office, and then after the expiration of each full term in office, judges are subject to retention elections in which voters can choose to retain or not retain a judge. The vast majority (about 99 percent) of judges are retained by voters. State committees make recommendations to voters on the retention of judges distributed in booklet form with partial justifications prior to each judicial retention election. Voters have never voted not to retain an appellate judge in the forty years that the system has been in place. Voters tend to not retain judges only when there is a well-publicized scandal and usually also a recommendation from a state committee that a judge not be retained. Judges may also be impeached by the legislature (a very rare occurrence) and are monitored by a judicial discipline commission. Many complaints about judges found by the judicial discipline commission to warrant further investigation are resolved when the judge involved retires, rendering the investigation moot. Colorado judges are not subject to recall elections.

The appointment and retention of municipal court judges is governed by municipal ordinance. All or almost all municipal judges are appointed.

Judicial qualifications

Appellate judges, District Court judges, Denver Probate Court judges, Juvenile Court judges and County Court judges in larger counties are required to be lawyers. Trial courts also often have magistrates with many judicial powers appointed by the court who must also be lawyers.

County Court judges in smaller counties are not required to be lawyers, but currently there are no more than four non-lawyer state judges in Colorado, all of whom are part-time, and at least three of whom are college educated.

Preference in hiring municipal judges must be given to lawyers. Municipal judges in courts of record must be lawyers, while municipal judges in courts not of record need not be lawyers. In practice, all of the larger municipalities in Colorado have municipal courts of record with judges who are lawyers. Many municipal judges who are lawyers serve on multiple municipal courts and/or are part-time county court judges.

U.S. Congress

The people of the state of Colorado are additionally represented in the federal government of the United States by two United States Senators and seven Congressional Representatives:


Colorado has elected 17 Democrats and 12 Republicans to the governorship in the last 100 years. Incumbent Governor John Hickenlooper, who was elected in 2010, is a Democrat, and his predecessor, Governor Bill Ritter, who won election in 2006 is also a Democrat, though his predecessor Bill Owens is a Republican.

The state's electoral votes went to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, Republican Bob Dole in 1996, Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.[citation needed]

Of Colorado's seven members of the United States House of Representatives, four are Republicans and three are Democrats following the 2010 election.

See also


  1. ^ "Constitution of the State of Colorado". The State of Colorado. Retrieved 2008-04-09. 
  2. ^ a b Article II of the Constitution of Colorado on Justia.Com, accessed September 21, 2010
  3. ^ Section 1, Article II, Constitution of Colorado
  4. ^ Section 2, Article II, Constitution of Colorado
  5. ^ Section 5, Article II, Constitution of Colorado
  6. ^ Article VII, Constitution of Colorado
  7. ^ Section 1, Article V, Constitution of Colorado
  8. ^ Section 1, Article V, Constitution of Colorado
  9. ^ Article V, Constitution of Colorado Justia.Com, accessed September 21, 2010
  10. ^ Article XXI, Constitution of Colorado
  11. ^ Colorado Governor Bill Ritter appointed Michael Bennet to serve the remaining two years of United States Senator Ken Salazar term of office which was left vacant on 2009-01-20, when new United States President Barack Obama appointed the Colorado Senator to serve as his Secretary of the Interior.

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