Courting Colorado’s Courts Through Covid-19

Denver County District Court. (Courthouse News photo / Amanda Pampuro)

Ask any government entity about its pandemic plan in the beginning of March, and you were too early to be taken seriously. If you waited until the end of the month, you were told to get in line.

Well, I did. I waited in line for 16 weeks to regain access to the thousands of civil complaints filed since Colorado courts closed in mid-March. I can’t tell whether any of my impassioned letters or the pleases and thank yous stirred any clerk’s heart to grease the gears of the bureaucratic machine and move things along any faster than if I hadn’t said a word. I only know I communicated every combination of words I could think of to anyone who would listen that conveyed the need to keep the public informed of court business during these uncertain times.

While the Colorado state courts had a means of giving attorneys remote access to the full civil docket statewide, the system was meant for neither the public nor the press. The only other alternatives were no access and physical access. The former seemed unconscionable considering that any serious challenges to Covid-19 stay-at-home orders would come first to the judges.

The latter idea turned my stomach as well. It seems cruel to require anyone to show up in person in the digital age, much less during a pandemic. But that was me selfishly worrying about contracting a highly infectious disease, so I accepted the risk and visited the five courts that let me in — six if you count Adams County, but their public access terminal has been down for more than a month so it hasn’t done much good.

Many clerks in Denver were happy to look up specific cases for me, but when I told them I was interested in cases 20cv31085 through 20cv32100, they either hung up or transferred me to another department.

Denver keeps two public access computers in the basement records department, but couldn’t manage to either carry them up to an empty room or move the dividing walls around them.

It’s been difficult to explain my work situation to friends and family over the last four months. “What do you mean you’re driving up to Fort Collins to use a computer?” They ask the same questions over and over, trying to figure out what detail they’re missing to make sense of the whole convoluted system. All I can say is that I’ve read enough Camus and Kafka to be OK in an absurd world and I don’t know if I will ever be able to watch Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” again without flashbacks.

If it seems trite to care about reviewing legal complaints during a public health disaster and unemployment crisis, remember that the courts are exactly where people go for justice when they believe they have been wronged.

From my face-masked court visits I can confirm dozens of homeowners’ associations filed foreclosures against homeowners and several landlords filed lease disputes to jumpstart evictions once the moratoriums lifted. Political candidates lobbied for extra time to circulate petitions, criminal defendants cried foul on disrupted due process, and at least one employee sued his former boss for using Covid-19 as an excuse to fire him.

I take no position on any of these issues except to say they raise very good questions, the answers to which are certainly of public importance. 

Like all of our public institutions, the pandemic cornered the courts in an unwinnable position: how do you maintain access to important legal remedies without getting everyone sick? The beautiful old buildings have notoriously outdated ventilation systems and paltry renovation budgets. The state and district courts have done their best to keep a skeleton crew on staff to ensure people in unsafe conditions can file for protection and custody orders. I have thanked them for being there every chance I got and meant it.

I never mind one bit if someone in urgent need or representing themselves pro se jumps ahead of me in line. Because there are so few of us reporters keeping our eyes on the court — many recently furloughed or fired — I will not move from the line so long as it is my job to advocate for and facilitate access. 

Here we are, four months into the 2020 pandemic and four months away from the 2020 election. We couldn’t have regained access to the courts at a better time — because there is never a good time lose it.

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