Colorado judge’s public censure highlights courts’ challenges with transparency, diversity
A couple years ago, a 16-year-old Black boy went to a party attended by mostly white kids in Cherry Creek, and one of those white kids used a racial slur.
A fight ensued, and the Black teenager was arrested on assault charges.
The juvenile criminal case then went before 18th Judicial District Court Judge Natalie Chase — the judge who last month was publicly censured by the Colorado Supreme Court, and agreed to resign, in part because she questioned a Black court employee about why white people couldn’t use that same racial slur.
The circumstances of the family court judge’s censure and resignation — and other emerging complaints about her time on the bench — present a microcosm of the larger issues now facing Colorado’s court system, from growing calls for reform and racial justice, to the lack of diversity among the state’s judges, to the largely secret system the state uses to discipline judges for violating ethical or professional rules.
“I feel heartbroken,” said Melissa Michaelis Thompson, executive director of the Office of Respondent Parents’ Counsel, which assigns attorneys to parents who can’t otherwise afford representation in child welfare cases. “As someone who has worked for the government my entire career as a lawyer, when the government reveals something like this, it is heartbreaking.”
Her agency last week asked people of color who previously had cases before Chase in Arapahoe County and believe they were treated unfairly to lodge complaints so the office can consider what options might be available to investigate and try to remedy any unfairness.
“If there is a parent who has a current case ongoing, lawyers can file motions, in the trial court or at the court of appeals, to have issues of bias addressed,” she said. “More concerning is what happens with those families who think judicial bias impacted their case, but it’s old, it’s closed. The answers for those families are few and far between.”
“Not right from the gate”
Aresia Williams still gets angry when she talks about her experience in Chase’s courtroom with her son, the Black teenager charged with assault after the fight in Cherry Creek.
Chase set a $50,000 bond for Williams’ son, and during a hearing in late 2019 or early 2020, the judge expressed shock in court when she learned the boy’s bond was paid, said Williams, and her attorney, Ben Hartford.
“We came into court, and she’s like, ‘Oh, he bonded out? How did he get out?’” Williams said. “In front of everybody. She questioned us, like, ‘How could you guys afford an attorney?’”
Williams believed the judge was only questioning their financial standing because she is Black, and she was furious. Her attorney also was appalled by what he called Chase’s patronizing and demeaning statements.
“This was totally unprofessional and out of hand,” Hartford said. “…I’m in a place where I want to say something right then, but I’m constrained, because she is the judge who is going to hear the son’s case. So I am biting my tongue… I don’t even have the option of a jury. She is going to be the one to decide his fate. So I can’t step on her toes and call out a wrong because of the position she is in.”
Chase did not return requests for comment on this story. She acknowledged using the slur and apologized for her actions to the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, according to the state Supreme Court’s censure order.
Hartford could have filed a complaint with the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, the board tasked with disciplining judges who violate professional or ethical rules, but he felt doing so would be fruitless and could provoke retaliation.
“I know how it made my client feel, but there wasn’t anything overt in what (Chase) said,” he said. “And frankly, filing judicial complaints — unless you have something so egregious, like what they have now, it rarely goes anywhere… if I file that complaint, it’s like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the courtroom.”
Williams’ son ended up taking a deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, in large part because Hartford felt going to trial before Chase was too risky. Had the teenager been convicted, he would have been taken out of his family home and put into a group home, Hartford said, even if an appeal was filed.
The plea deal allowed the case to eventually be sealed and expunged, with no mark on Williams’ son’s permanent record. The family was ordered to pay about $11,000 in restitution.
“She was not right from the gate,” Williams said of Chase. “And the fact that she is having to resign because of all (this now), it makes me think, how many other people has she done this to?”
Employees came forward
Court employees brought forward the concerns about Chase that led to her resignation, records show.
“We know parents have complained and experienced judicial bias in her courtroom,” Thompson said, “but when you have a case of abuse and neglect and you say, ‘Hey, the judge is biased,’ people don’t listen. So I think it’s telling that what moved this to a censure was the employees.”
Chase was censured by the Colorado Supreme Court on April 16, after she told a Black court employee that her son had gotten into trouble at school for using what the censure described as “the N-word,” and then questioned the woman about why Black people can say that word but white people cannot. Chase used the racial slur several times during the conversation.
She also spoke about her political views while on the bench, according to the records, directed her court staff to carry out her personal business, called another judge an expletive and asked attorneys who’d anonymously reviewed her performance to tell her what they’d said.
Only five judges, including Chase, have been disciplined publicly in Colorado since 2010, and most of the cases follow a similar pattern of personal misconduct that occurs largely outside of court proceedings.
Laurie Booras called another judge “the little Mexican,” Robert Rand made misogynistic and inappropriate comments, Lance Timbreza was charged with driving under the influence and Ryan Kamada tipped a friend off to a federal drug investigation.
That’s in large part because the Judicial Discipline Commission does not handle matters of law — complaints about a judge’s legal decisions must go through the regular appeal process in the courts — so the type of judicial misconduct that actually results in discipline is limited, said Chris Forsyth, executive director of The Judicial Integrity Project.
“If it actually happens in a case, then the discipline commission is going to say, ‘Well that is subject to an appeal, so we can’t discipline for that,’” he said. “In other states, that can be disciplined and they can take action on that. It’s disingenuous of the Supreme Court and the Judicial Discipline Commission to throw out these cases trying to make it look like they are disciplining judicial misconduct, when they are not.”
Public discipline for Colorado judges is very rare, but private discipline is also infrequent, according to annual reports published by the commission.
Between 2010 and 2019, the commission disciplined 51 judges privately. There are close to 400 judges in the state.
“(Chase’s) comments were horrible,” Forsyth said. “And show improper disposition for a judge. However… there are a lot of things going on out there that are a lot more detrimental to people’s cases in court, and that is actually misconduct that is not prosecuted.”
Two cases on appeal
At least two cases in which Chase found someone in contempt of court are currently pending before the Colorado Court of Appeals.
In 2019, Chase refused to allow an attorney to advise his client, who faced criminal charges, of her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent while she was being questioned on the witness stand in a civil proceeding.
Chase found the attorney, Alan Rosenfeld, in contempt of court for continuing to do so, in what Denver civil rights attorney David Lane called “the most outrageous ruling I have seen in decades.” He is representing Rosenfeld in an appeal, which is pending.
“The whole basis for the appeal is Natalie Chase doesn’t know what she is doing as a judge,” he said. “This is a blatantly, outrageously illegal order that a lawyer representing someone who is compelled to get on the witness stand can’t advise that client to take the Fifth and remain silent.”
Advising a client about remaining silent is such an accepted legal practice that it’s not unusual for attorneys to stand next to their clients and advise them after each question whether to answer or remain silent, Lane said, but Chase wouldn’t allow it. Rosenfeld resorted to knocking on a table to signal his client not to answer particular questions, according to the appeal.
Rosenfeld was fined $1,000 by another judge after he was found in contempt of court — a penalty that judges can hand out if someone violates a court order. Sanctions range from a fine to up to six months in jail.
In another case, Chase found that a woman, Courtney Propst, had violated a protective order in a dependency and neglect case that prohibited her from “discussing the allegations of abuse or neglect which were investigated during the case or providing case related-information” to anyone not involved in the case. She was also prohibited from posting information on the allegations online, according to a notice of appeal filed April 22 by attorney Milo Schwab.
Propst has been in jail since Aug. 31 on a series of contempt charges handed out by three judges, including Chase. Attorneys on the delinquency and neglect case are subject to a gag order, and the case files aren’t publicly available.
The latest contempt proceeding was initiated in December, two days after an opinion column written by University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, according to the notice of appeal, which implies but does not detail a connection between the column and the contempt proceeding.
The column included details about Propst’s case, but did not mention her by name. Ganahl wrote that “a mom I know” was jailed, and that she couldn’t name the woman because “the judge put a gag order on her, and anyone trying to help her.” The column included a quote from a message the jailed woman wrote to a friend.
In March, Chase found that Propst had violated the protective order by “talking about motions to withdraw,” “talking about attorneys in this case” and “talking about the unfairness of this case,” and sentenced her to six more months in jail, according to the notice of appeal.
Because of the secrecy around Propst’s case, it is not clear whether Propst was held in contempt solely because of the column or if Chase found she violated the protective order in other ways.
Ganahl founded Moms Fight Back, a nonprofit organization that focuses on family court reform, among other issues, and said she heard about the case through that work. She declined to discuss Propst’s case in detail, but called Chase “rogue and vindictive.”
“If there is any fairness in the state’s judicial system at all, the mom’s sentence will be reviewed and overturned by an appropriate officer of the courts,” Ganahl said.
Schwab argued in the notice of appeal that Chase’s protective order was unconstitutional.
“In this case, it seemed to me (Chase) was doubling down on that impulse to shy away from any public review, and saying that any mention of any fact in any way related to this case was an effective criminal offense for my client,” Schwab said. “And that’s just not how the Constitution works. That is not how the First Amendment works.”
On the other side of the case, representing Propst’s ex-husband, attorney Richard Bednarksi said Chase’s actions were reasonable and in the best interest of the children involved. He said the notice of appeal does not give the full picture of Chase’s ruling or the reasons she found Propst in contempt.
“I don’t believe there is a real good argument for overturning the contempt finding,” he said. “It does deal with defamatory comments being placed out there. And it deals with (Propst’s) continued violation of a court order.”
He added that he has found Chase to be thoughtful and professional when he’s come in front of her in court.
Attorney Jessica Peck also defended Chase’s record on the bench, describing her as a capable and measured judge with a particular skill at handling cases involving children.
“It’s a very complex analysis when it comes to protecting the rights of a parent versus protecting the rights of a child,” Peck said. “She intuitively knew where that line was.”
Peck added that Chase fostered a casual environment in her courtroom, but that she never had any hint as to Chase’s political views.
“It was an environment where it seemed like people were really empowered, she would talk to the clerk, the county attorney, to the interns. There was a lot of casual conversation. There was no hierarchy, like there is in a lot of courtrooms,” she said.
“Black robe disease”
Retired Denver County Court Judge Gary Jackson, who has for years advocated for increased diversity in the courts and now serves as a senior judge, said judges walk a fine line between maintaining order and keeping a welcoming environment in their courtrooms.
He said there were several appropriate avenues, from meetings to educational seminars, where Chase could have discussed her thoughts on the racial slur she questioned the employee about — but the way she did it was offensive and inappropriate.
“Having these types of conversations in open court, or even in your chambers, where there is an imbalance of power between the judge and the people you are talking to, these are not the places to have those types of conversations,” he said. “I’m just surprised and disappointed that she did not learn from the judges around her what would have been the appropriate way of conducting her courtroom.”
He added that until a few months ago, there hadn’t been a Black judge on the bench in Arapahoe County since 2010, and that having more people of color on the bench broadens the opportunities for judges to discuss such issues with other judges, rather than with subordinates or other court staff.
“I look at this as the ‘black robe disease,’ where some judges feel they have the privilege to say anything they want in their courtroom,” Jackson said. “And whether you call that black robe disease, or, what I look at as being white privilege, it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who publicly clashed with Chase in 2016 when she sentenced a youth pastor who sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl to 90 days in jail and 20 years probation, said he wonders if Chase’s censure signals a shift in how judicial discipline is handled in Colorado.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “As long as I’ve been in the game, I’ve never seen a judge disciplined for the things Judge Chase was disciplined for. And part of me wonders if this is the kind of thing that has taken place, off the radar, in the past — but because of all the issues… and this new heightened scrutiny of the judiciary, if this isn’t the first of some other things we’ll see like this.”
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