2016: A Good Year (and Far Better than Expected) for Civil Liberties in the Colorado Legislature
The 120-day Colorado legislative session ended last Wednesday night, May 11. Much has been made about the failure of bipartisanship and many have referred to this year’s session as “anti-climatic” and a “house divided.” For the issues that received much media attention, I suppose these references ring true. The legislature failed to re-classify Colorado’s hospital provider fee as an enterprise fund, failed to pass a Presidential primary bill even though there were two bills, each with bipartisan sponsors, and did not secure sufficient funding for all of Colorado’s road infrastructure needs.
At the beginning of session, I expected similar gridlock on civil liberties issues. I was wrong. Indeed, the final two bills to pass both chambers allow more leniency for juveniles serving life sentences and permit a select group of inmates to participate in a program that will allow them to make a case to the Governor for clemency. The bills invited an emotional debate among legislators about redemption and honoring victim’s rights. These issues are not easy, but ultimately because the bills honored both victims and redemption, our lawmakers passed them with significant bipartisan support.
The ACLU was also able to work with Republicans and Democrats to pass new protections for children against the use of solitary confinement at facilities operated by the Department of Youth Corrections. The Department strongly opposed the bill, but with the leadership of House Democrat Representative Pete Lee and Senate Republicans Kevin Lundberg and Kent Lambert, it received overwhelming bipartisan support, passing both chambers on a vote of 70-30. It passed the Senate unanimously.
In attempting to reign in the harsh and unconstitutional practices of municipal courts, the ACLU found many friends in Republican ranks. Years of investigation by the ACLU of Colorado has revealed without question that justice is hard to come by in Colorado municipal courts if you’re poor. Many individuals plead guilty without the benefit of counsel, something that is afforded to incarcerated defendants in State and County courts. We also found indigent defendants going to jail for minor infractions simply because they were too poor to pay court fines and fees. To remedy these issues, House Democrat Representative Susan Lontine sponsored a bill requiring public defenders in municipal courts and House Democrat Joe Salazar sponsored a bill to close the loophole in the 2014 debtors’ prison law. Both bills found Republican support in the Senate. Republican Senator Vicki Marble sponsored both bills in the Senate and was joined by Senator Morgan Carroll on the debtors’ prison bill. The bills received broad Senate support, and we were particularly thankful and impressed by both Republican Senators Chris Holbert and Tim Neville who vocally supported the municipal public defender bill from the well. The bills received a nearly three-fourths majority of the vote from both chambers and await the Governor’s signature.
We also saw smooth sailing for a bill to protect student data privacy, which passed unanimously through both chambers. I must also mention that with the help of Senate Republicans, we were able to defeat the seemingly annual bill calling for the collection of DNA from those convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses.
If there was one area in particular that I would not have expected any bipartisan work this year, it was in the area of immigration. Yet, two bills passed with bipartisan support and one even had bipartisan sponsorship. House Democrat Representative Dan Pabon sponsored a bill to regulate “notarios”, individuals who present themselves to the immigrant community as attorneys qualified to advise on complex immigration matters, when in fact, they are not so qualified. Many immigrants fall prey to these individuals, lose a lot of money and get no benefit from the services provided. Republican Senator Kevin Lundberg sponsored this legislation in the Senate. It awaits the Governor’s signature. Rep. Pabon also sponsored a bill making it illegal for anyone to secure a government service, like an appointment to get a driver’s license, and sell it to a third party. This practice has been pervasive of late simply because there is a high demand for drivers’ licenses in the immigrant community, but few appointments are available. This, too, received bipartisan support.
It wasn’t complete harmony on civil liberties’ issues, however. Republicans introduced many bills attempting to limit a woman’s access to reproductive health options. There were several attempts to limit access to voting through photo ID bills and the like. All were defeated. Also defeated, but by Senate Republicans, unfortunately, was a bill that would have made it easier for transgender individuals to change the gender on a birth certificate. And Republicans in both chambers continued to use the tag line “religious freedom” as a license to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
All in all, however, it was a good year and far better than expected.