• Mario Nicolais

In 2017, Legislature's judiciary committees are in good hands

For the Colorado Legislature, the new year means new bills and new issues to tackle under the gold dome. In one of the legislative chambers, the state Senate, this new season in state politics will also mean plenty of new faces as well.


Even before the session convenes on Jan. 11, the judiciary committees will begin their work. Joint judiciary meetings will be held on Jan. 3 and 4. Members will discuss upcoming bills and issues to be addressed. It is effectively a head start on a session that always seems both too long and too short. Too long for those involved in the daily rough and tumble; too short to address many of the state’s pressing issues.


At first blush, it appears that the Senate Judiciary Committee would begin with substantial disadvantage. Of its five members, four will be new to the committee, including its chair. And one member is a literal unknown — in October, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, announced she would resign effective Dec. 31, setting in motion a vacancy appointment process. Her replacement will be a member of the Judiciary Committee.


However, this first blush should fade quickly. The new committee is hardly composed of babes swaddled in white robes entering a new legislative legal world. To the contrary, the four members already known represent tremendous experience that should serve the state well.


While new to the state Senate, the newly-minted Judiciary chairman, Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, not only served years in the House, but is among the most considerate and thoughtful legislators in Colorado. A respected attorney, Gardner is both open-minded and ready to delve into the deep and complex details surrounding judiciary bills. Vice chair Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, is a former police officer and sheriff. He also happens to be the committee’s only returning member.


The two Democrats serving on the committee are no less formidable in terms of their legal chops. Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Littleton, just completed service as the House Judiciary Committee chair, and should bring ample experience to the body. Joining Kagan in traversing from the House is Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. She brings with her maybe the most powerful and poignant personal experience with the criminal justice system in the Legislature’s history. Fields entered public service after her son was murdered for doing his civic duty to testify against a criminal. Her son’s murderers now sit on Colorado’s death row.


The final member of that committee will be hard pressed to measure up to these giants.


The House Judiciary Committee is almost a paradigm of continuity in comparison to the Senate situation. In the chamber with more members and shorter terms, eight of 11 members will return from last session. Former vice chairman Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, will slide one seat over into the chairman’s role and Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, an experienced civil rights attorney, will fill Lee’s position as vice chair. They will be joined by fellow returning members Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, a retired Air Force Reserves JAG Colonel; Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, a deputy district attorney, Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument; Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora; Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, a litigator and active member of the legal community and Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, a leading attorney in workplace safety and health law. New members include attorney Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, who recently finished law school after a career in the technology industry.


There will be a host of issues before these men and women in 2017: criminal justice reform, parole changes, sexual assault sentences and the role of mental health in the justice system to name a few. Luckily for Colorado, these House and Senate judiciary members appear to be up to the task.


Read this column from The Colorado Statesman online in ColoradoPolitics.com.

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