DENVER—Gov. John Hickenlooper’s pick for the Colorado Supreme Court last week came as a letdown to those hoping the governor would choose a moderate jurist to replace retiring Chief Justice Michael Bender.
Hickenlooper selected Denver District Court Judge William Hood III to fill the seat being vacated by Bender, who is required by state law to step down upon reaching his 72nd birthday in January. Appointed in 1997 by Democratic Gov. Roy Romer, Bender was known as a reliable member of the court’s activist left wing.
Nothing is expected to change with the appointment of the 50-year-old Hood, whose Democratic Party connections appear to place him squarely in the liberal camp of the Colorado legal community, say critics.
Before he was named to the District Court bench in 2007, Hood was a regular campaign contributor to state Democrats, including former Gov. Bill Ritter, the Democratic House Majority Project, and University of Colorado Regent Michael Carrigan, according to campaign-finance records.
“Hickenlooper’s elevation of a partisan Democrat contributor to his predecessor in office [Ritter] further erodes the governor’s claim to moderation and impartiality in carrying out one of the key responsibilities of his office–ensuring that good judges who understand that their role is to fairly and impartially uphold and apply the law—are elevated to judicial office, instead of more politicians in black robes,” said the conservative watchdog group Clear the Bench in an Oct. 26 post.
More troubling to court-watchers is Hood’s association with Mark Grueskin, the Colorado Democratic Party’s attorney and a regular litigator before the state Supreme Court. Prior to his judicial service, Hood worked with Grueskin at the Denver law firm Isaacson Rosenbaum.
That link may have played a part in his reassignment from the 2011 congressional redistricting lawsuit after Hood was chosen at random to hear the case.
“Given Hood’s close associations with Democrat Party attorney and frequent Colorado Supreme Court litigant Mark Grueskin, this pick could lead to a number of recusals in some high-profile, politically charged cases that might come before the Colorado Supreme Court,” said Clear the Bench.
Choosing a liberal jurist to replace Bender wasn’t necessarily a no-brainer for Hickenlooper. In 2011, the governor bypassed more liberal candidates in order to elevate former Golden District Court Judge Brian D. Boatright to the high court.
Speculation at the time was that the governor wanted to avoid choosing a justice sympathetic to the arguments made by plaintiffs in Lobato v. the State of Colorado, the school-financing case that threatened to trigger a state budget crisis.
In May, the high court upheld the constitutionality of the state’s school-funding system on a 4-2 vote, overturning a lower court’s order that effectively compelled increased state spending on K-12 education and a massive tax increase. With the Lobato threat defused, analysts say Hickenlooper was undoubtedly under pressure to appoint a jurist more in line with the party’s dominant left wing.
“These judges, while they’re up for retention every 10 years, have what are essentially lifetime appointments and have a tremendous impact,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “I just think there was tons of lobbying and pressure [on the governor], and there was not going to be another Boatright.”
If Hickenlooper had wanted a more centrist justice, court-watchers say he could have selected Court of Appeals Judge John Dailey, one of three finalists for the job.
At Friday’s announcement, Hickenlooper praised Hood for his fair-mindedness.
“William Hood has consistently demonstrated an ability to fairly apply the law while effectively administering justice,” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “His breadth of experience on both sides of the courtroom is invaluable to informed decisions.”
Law Week Colorado reported that Hood’s nomination was supported by the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, the Colorado GLBT Bar Association, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the Sam Cary Bar Association, and the Colorado Civil Justice League.
Former Senate President John Andrews, an advocate for judicial term limits, said the appointment undermines the governor’s efforts to claim the political center.
“This is one more symptom of John Hickenlooper taking off the mask of moderation and showing the true liberal that lies underneath,” said the Republican Andrews.
Justice Nancy E. Rice replaces Bender as chief justice. As a new appointee, Hood must face a provisional vote in two years, after which he has 10 years before his next retention vote.