The Colorado Lawyers Committee makes every effort to find solutions to issues without the need for litigation. Sometimes, this informal approach is not successful. Below is some of our recent litigation.
Civil Rights: McDaniel-Miccio v. Colorado
At the beginning of 2014, 19 states in the U.S. recognized the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. Colorado was not one of them. Volunteer attorneys from Reilly Pozner LLP, Law of the Rockies, and Gutterman Griffiths PC have helped change that statistic. Their case, McDaniel-Miccio v. Colorado along with a consolidated case, Brinkman v. Long (filed by Anne Wilcox, Ralph Ogden and Professor Tom Russell), kicked off an avalanche of marriage equality litigation in Colorado. A similar case was filed in federal court by the lawyers at Killmer Lane & Newman, LLP. These cases eventually secured marriage equity for GLBT families in our state. John McHugh (Reilly Pozner LLP) led this effort.Top
Mental Health: Center for Legal Advocacy v. Bicha
The Center for Legal Advocacy v. Bicha complaint was filed by members of the Mental Health Task Force in August 2011 to challenge the failure of the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo to provide timely evaluations and treatment for presumptively incompetent individuals in jail. At that time, individuals charged with a crime and awaiting competency evaluations remained incarcerated, often without restorative treatment, for periods of time that could exceed the possible sentences for their crime. Click here for a copy of the complaint. In April 2012, after many months of negotiations, the parties entered into a settlement agreement that will be phased into every Colorado county over 15 months. It is considered the most comprehensive agreement in the United States to help pretrial detainees who are mentally ill. Specifically, the agreement stipulates that the State must evaluate or begin medical treatment of any person who is presumptively incompetent within 28 days of receiving a court order to do so; monthly progress reports also must be submitted to The Center for Legal Advocacy (aka The Legal Center for Persons With Disabilities and Older Persons) to ensure compliance. The Federal District Court will maintain jurisdiction over the case for up to 10 years to ensure enforcement of the agreement. Recently, CLC volunteers asked the Court to reopen the case, alleging the State was not in compliance with the settlement agreement. Negotiations are underway. Click here for a copy the settlement agreement. Congratulations to the Mental Health Task Force Litigation Team for such a successful result!
Education: Lobato v. State
This lawsuit was originally filed in June 2005, on behalf of various school districts, children, and parents across the state, against the State of Colorado, the State Board of Education, the State Commissioner of Education, and the Governor, challenging the constitutionality of the Colorado school finance system. The case was dismissed by the trial court; the dismissal was affirmed by the Colorado Court of Appeals and subsequently reversed by the Colorado Supreme Court, in October 2009. The Supreme Court held that the judiciary has the responsibility to review public school funding to determine whether the system is “rationally related to the General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education” and remanded the case to the trial court. After a five week trial in August 2011, the trial court ruled that Colorado’s low financing of K-12 education is unconscionable and does not meet the “thorough and uniform” requirement of the Colorado Constitution. Click here for a copy of the order. In early 2012, the State appealed the trial court decision. In late 2012, the Lobato team filed its response; several amici briefs also were filed, in support of both sides. The Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 7, 2013. The courtroom was packed with attorneys, students and the media; two overflow rooms and online streaming were necessary to accommodate all those interested in the proceedings. On May 28, 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court issued it’s opinion. In a 4-2 vote, the Court reversed the trial court decision, holding that Colorado’s school finance system is rationally related to the ‘thorough and uniform’ standard of the state Constitution despite not “provid[ing] an optimal amount of money to the public schools.” Click here to read the opinion. Regardless of the outcome of this long battle, we sincerely thank all of the volunteers who tirelessly worked on this case for so many years–their work was critical in bringing the state of education to the attention of so many.
Public Benefits: Davis v. Birch
This lawsuit was filed in 2004 on behalf of individuals whose essential public benefits have been improperly denied or whose applications and redeterminations for public benefits were slowly processed. Since August 2004, the State’s computerized benefit management system (CBMS) has failed to process applications for benefits in a timely manner which resulted in the improper denial or delay of public benefits for Colorado citizens (i.e. Medicaid, food stamps, TANF, etc.). In December 2004, the Court ordered the State to meaningfully reduce the backlog of benefits applications, substantially correct the notice problems, establish an 800-number for people in emergency situations, and handle these emergency matters within 5 business days. In December 2007, the parties also entered into a stipulation and order of settlement that required the State to improve its performance and report on its progress. Reports submitted by the State during 2010 suggested they were significantly out of compliance with the original settlement agreement and Federal law. As a result, the Task Force opened negotiations with both the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF) in an effort to modify and extend the existing settlement agreement. Late in 2010, the Task Force reached an agreement with DHS to extend the settlement agreement relating to food stamps. Click here for the settlement with DHS. On October 8, 2010, members of the Task Force filed a motion for contempt, enforcement and modification of the settlement agreement against HCPF relating to Medicaid and other health care benefits. In early 2011, the Task Force reached an agreement with HCPF which modified and extended the settlement agreement. The new agreement was approved by the Court on April 25, 2011. Click here for the HCPF settlement. The Task Force continues to monitor the State’s progress and compliance with the settlements.
Criminal Law: Colorado Criminal Defense Bar v. Hickenlooper
On December 2, 2010, members of the Colorado Lawyers Committee’s Sixth Amendment Task Force filed a lawsuit in federal district court, on behalf of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar Association. The suit challenged the constitutionality of a Colorado statute requiring misdemeanor defendants to meet with the prosecutor before counsel was appointed. (During this meeting, the prosecutor often engages the defendant in plea discussions and many defendants agree to a plea agreement without requesting or benefiting from the appointment of counsel.) Click here for a copy of the complaint. The State responded with two Motions to Dismiss, one for failure to name necessary defendants, the other for lack of standing. Click here for the First Amended Complaint (filed in February 2011); click here for the Second Amended Complaint (filed in January 2012). The Task Force continued to litigate this effort until a team of legislators took on the issue. In the 2013 regular legislative session, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees considered House Bill 13-1210 to repeal the statute. The bill was approved by both Committees; the Appropriations Committee subsequently set aside approximately $8 million to hire additional Public Defenders to represent indigent clients in these matters. In May 2013, Governor Hickenlooper signed House Bill 13-1210, officially removing the requirement that misdemeanor defendants confer with a prosecutor before legal counsel is appointed. This resolved all the claims in the lawsuit and on May 30, 2013, Judge Kane dismissed the case. Congratulations to the 26 volunteers for your hard work over several years–your efforts were instrumental in bringing this constitutional issue to the legislative table and protecting the rights of defendants in all criminal matters.
Civil Rights/Land Rights: Lobato v. Taylor
This litigation was filed in 1981 and is based on a dispute, between the heirs of the settlers of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant and the owners of the former Taylor Ranch, which dates back to the 1960s. The controversy, regarding the 77,500 acres of mountains adjacent to the historic settlements in Costilla County, originated with promises made in the mid-1800’s that Mexican settlers of the land grant would have access to the mountains near their homes for survival and other purposes. In 1960, Jack Taylor purchased and fenced off the mountains that had been used for grazing, wood gathering and other purposes for more than 100 years. This caused an enormous disruption to the economic and social fabric of the local communities who had relied on the mountains for generations.
The Colorado Lawyers Committee became involved in 1996 and has seen the case through federal court review, two trials, and both appeals. In an historic opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court, in 2003, upheld the rights of plaintiff property owners (whose heirs and predecessors settled the land grant when it was still part of Mexico) in and around San Luis, Colorado to exercise traditional use rights to graze livestock and collect wood and timber on the property known as “La Sierra” or the former “Taylor Ranch.” The Colorado Supreme Court remanded the case to the Costilla County District Court to identify all the current landowners who are entitled to access and use the property based on the test established by the Supreme Court. In 2004, the Court began a process to identify the current owners of land entitled to access and use La Sierra. To date, the District Court has identified more than 7,500 parcels entitled to access and use La Sierra. Starting in 2010, the Task Force also focused on expanding the identification process so that all landowners in Costilla County could have the opportunity to attempt to establish that their land is entitled to access and use La Sierra. In 2011, the highlight of these efforts was the Torcido Creek Road litigation, involving the placement of boulders and digging of trenches to block a road leading to the Taylor Ranch. The result was a swift negotiated settlement that restored access to the Taylor Ranch via Torcido Creek Road. Click here for a copy of the settlement agreement. The Task Force continues to work to ensure the right of access to the Taylor Ranch by plaintiff class members.