Looking back at Colorado’s year in the legal spotlight
At the beginning of 2017, I wrote about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and its future under then-incoming President Donald Trump. Now, at the end of the year, it’s again a primary topic of discussion in political circles. In the interim, 2017 gave us a wild, Colorado-centric ride.
By the end of January, Trump nominated Colorado native and 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia nearly a year before. While Gorsuch’s brilliant legal mind and sparkling resume would have made Senate approval a matter of formality in years past, the months-long Republican blockade of Merrick Garland to the same seat ensured party-line rancor. In the end, only three Democrats joined every Republican in confirming Gorsuch to the bench.
The elevation of Gorsuch began the tune for a judicial round of musical chairs. Colorado Supreme Court Justice Allison Eid ran a similar gauntlet to fill Gorsuch’s suddenly empty chair on the 10th Circuit. Her successful nomination left a hole in the state’s highest court. Fifteen Coloradans then sifted through a flood of applications to fill Eid’s seat settling on three nominees, including Gov. John Hickenlooper’s eventual choice, and Eid’s former University of Colorado Law School colleague, Melissa Hart. Just because they worked together, though, doesn’t mean the two women viewed the world through the same interpretive lens. Unlike Scalia and Gorsuch, whose judicial philosophies generally aligned, Eid and Hart come from diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum. Beginning in 2018, Colorado may see significant changes to the legal landscape now that the conservative Eid has been replaced by liberal Hart. That transition may have an even more profound long-term effect on Colorado law than Gorsuch’s in Washington, D.C.
In the short term, however, Gorsuch will weigh the opposing rights of a gay Colorado couple and the baker who refused to make their wedding cake. Marching its way through courts for the past several years, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case pits cries for equality and civil rights protections from LGBT groups against an individual’s right to practice religion under his own terms, including through his artistic expression at work. The outcome and decision will be among the most highly anticipated in 2018. No matter how the court comes down — and most prognosticators expect a 5-4 split one way or the other — it will become a seminal precedent the moment the opinion is handed down.
Of course, Gorsuch will not be making his decision without input from many Coloradans. While I signed a friend of the court amicus brief in the case, maybe the most important Coloradan to speak out on the case was Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Arguing for the sovereign right of Coloradans to self-governance, Coffman offered a full-throated defense of Colorado’s public accommodations statute. While such a stand may not win her many new admirers among the ends-justify-the-means crowd, it is the type of conservative leadership many Republicans have clamored for year after year. With Coffman stepping into the governor’s race, 2018 will be the year for those Republicans to make good on that promise.
In between these headline-grabbing stories, Colorado has seen its fair share of stories that would have been on the front page in many other years. The Supreme Court took a stand against loopholes in DUI laws; Colorado’s version of Jean Valjean — Rene Lima-Marin — finally found freedom; the state confronted its own #MeToo moments; and former First Lady Michelle Obama warned us against the everyday cuts that scar our women.
At the old Elitch Gardens, roller-coaster operators often gave passengers a ride-again option. Giving the ups and downs, twists and turns, bumps and dips we saw in 2017, as we pull into the gate this December, I’m not sure I’m ready to ride again quite yet in 2018. Hopefully, we’ll get at least a short break before plunging down the hill again.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and Denver Post columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq