New Arapahoe judicial district is official, potentially easing pressure on Aurora dockets

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A sheriff’s deputy walks the grounds of the Arapahoe County District Court. (AP file Photo/Brennan Linsley)

AURORA | For the first time in more than six decades, Colorado will soon have a new judicial district.

Gov. Jared Polis last month quietly signed a new state law that will calve Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln County cases off of current dockets in the 18th Judicial District, leaving only Arapahoe County cases in the jurisdiction that handles the majority of Aurora’s most brutal crimes.

Beginning in 2025, the three counties to the south and east of Aurora will emerge as an entirely new jurisdiction known as the 23rd Judicial District.

The remaining 18th Judicial District will then only handle cases from Arapahoe County, where more than 80 percent of Aurorans reside.

The state hasn’t added a new district to the 22 state court jurisdictions currently in its ranks since 1964.

The new district will eventually retain eight judges, while the Arapahoe County jurisdiction will see its number of jurists reduced from 24 to 17, according to legislative documents. Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln County voters will hire the 23rd Judicial District’s first-ever district attorney in the November 2024 general election, with judges phasing in or out of the district according to retention schedules and their home addresses. Arapahoe County voters will also select their own DA in 2024.

To stand up the new district, the state expects to pay an estimated $2.2 million in one-time technology and transition costs from 2022 to 2025, with nearly $2 million in ongoing annual costs beginning in 2025, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

A pair of Democratic legislators from Aurora were among the bill’s prime sponsors: Rep. Mike Weissman and Sen. Rhonda Fields.

For years, lawmakers have cited explosive growth in Arapahoe and Douglas Counties as the motivating factor to reduce increasingly bloated dockets in the 18th.

“No other judicial district has a population exceeding 750,000 people, and no other judicial district has approached the rate of growth of the 18th judicial district,” lawmakers wrote.

The 18th currently serves more than 1 million residents, the bulk of whom live in Arapahoe and Douglas Counties. In the past 40 years, the population of Douglas County has grown by almost 13 fold, with the 2019 population hovering just south of 360,000 people, according to U.S. Census data. Over the same time, the Arapahoe County population has grown by about 120 percent, now totaling slightly more than 650,000 people.

“When this 18th Judicial District was created 55 years ago, it was remarkably different than it is today, in terms of crime, population and voter sentiment,” current 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said in a statement. “The division of Arapahoe from Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties provides a fairer fiscal impact of the DA’s operations on the counties, as well as provides better greater representation of the community and its values at a smaller level.”

Brauchler, who was elected in 2012, will leave his post due to term limits later this year.

Polis signed the bill creating the new district on March 20 as Coloradans grappled with a cratering economy spurred by the new coronavirus. The bill was announced among a batch of proposals Polis approved and came one business day before he signed the controversial measure that outlaws the death penalty in the state for all crimes charged after July 1.

Though the new district won’t technically be formed for another five years, the machinations of the bill are slated to begin Sept. 1, barring the filing of a referendum petition. Anyone opposed to the measure is permitted to file such a protest within 90 days of the final gavel of the state Legislature later this year, though it’s currently unclear when that may occur due to delays prompted by COVID-19.