Bipartisan bill calling for Arapahoe County’s own judicial district heads to legislative committee

An Arapahoe County district courtroom. SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

AURORA | State legislators are once again working toward ostensibly granting much of Aurora its own judicial district. 

Aurora Democratic lawmakers Rep. Mike Weissman and Sen. Rhonda Fields earlier this month introduced a bill calling to carve Arapahoe County out of the current 18th Judicial District and create a wholly new court jurisdiction for the first time in more than 50 years.

Republicans Kevin Van Winkle in the House and Bob Gardner in the Senate join Fields and Weissman as prime sponsors.

The measure calls for the creation a 23rd judicial district that would comprise Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln Counties. The 18th Judicial District, which currently covers Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln Counties, would continue to exist but only prosecute Arapahoe County cases. 

Mike Weissman

Some 88 percent of Aurora residents live in Arapahoe County, current 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said last year. The remaining roughly 12 percent live in Adams County, with less than one tenth of one percent residing in Douglas County to the southeast.

Under the proposal, the new district would not be created until Jan. 1, 2025, with transition processes and expenses slowly ramping up in the preceding years, according to the measure’s fiscal note. 

The new district would eventually retain eight judges, and the Arapahoe County jurisdiction would see its number of judges reduced from 24 to 17.

The overwhelming majority of the most serious criminal cases currently filed in the 18th Judicial District come out of Arapahoe County, Brauchler has said.

The new district would cost the state 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 fiscal note. If passed, the state would hire a total of 25 new full-time employees, including prosecutors, investigators, human resources personnel and others to staff the new district, while absorbing 46 workers from the current 18th Judicial District. 

Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln County voters would 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.

“District judges in the current 18th Judicial District who are not up for retention in 2024 may serve the remainder of their term in (the) district in which they reside,” according to state documents.

The measure would also likely increase the workload for county clerks, the office of the state public defender, the division of youth services, and other state agencies. 

The state has not added a new judicial district since 1964, according to legislative documents. There are currently 22 judicial districts across the state.

Weissman floated the same notion last year, but quickly scuttled it prior to a formal introduction in the state congress, saying the idea needed to be fleshed out further.

“By doing it this year, this way, we provide an ample amount of time for the state Judicial Department and the counties involved to make the necessary changes in a phased, manageable way,” Weissman said of this year’s measure. “I think ultimately the result will be a more efficient administration of justice for everybody in all four of the counties, and I am happy to be able to do this in a bipartisan way.” 

When that proposal was being considered last winter, Brauchler, a Republican who’s term-limited this year, said the evolution of the metro area’s eastern counties, and in turn crime, warrants a discussion of a new court district. 

“When this judicial district was created 55 years ago, it was entirely different,” he said last year. “Arapahoe was the mothership as it is now, but Douglas was much more in line with what Arapahoe and Lincoln were. Douglas has since exploded.”

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.

The measure, introduced as House Bill 20-1026, is slated to be considered in the House Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 23.