True to its frontier roots, Colorado has more courts devoted to water rights than juvenile or probate issues. In this state, judges who are appointed to the bench have to run for re-election after a two-year probationary period. Re-elected judges have multi-year terms (eight years for appellate judges, 10 years for Supreme Court judges).
Colorado Limited Jurisdiction
Municipal courts in Colorado may hear cases related to domestic violence and traffic infractions. These are not considered state courts as they only enforce local ordinances – although a few have been granted power to decide cases involving state ordinances.
County courts have geographical jurisdiction in each of Colorado's 64 counties. These courts handle preliminary felony charges, misdemeanors, landlord-tenant disputes, and civil cases under $15,000. The bulk of county court cases are civil, about 34 percent, with traffic issues comprising about 30 percent and misdemeanors 15 percent. The grand total of county court cases filed in fiscal year 2015 was 425,000. Of those, about 16,000 were felony complaints.
Within the city of Denver there are special probate and juvenile courts.
Colorado Special Subject Matter Courts
Water court is a specialized jurisdiction over rights to water usage in seven districts across the state. Certain district court judges preside over this subject after being appointed by a state Supreme Court process.
There are several bodies within state government with quasi-judicial power over specific areas of law, like election law violations, the Public Utilities Commission when it acts in a quasi-judicial manner, unemployment hearing officers, license revocations, land use boards, professional regulatory boards, and an ethics commission.
Colorado General Trial Court
District courts are the general trial courts of Colorado with jurisdictions that may include more than one county; the state is divided into 22 judicial districts at this level. District courts handle matters that generally fall under family court, including divorces, child custody, adoption, paternity, mental health, and delinquency. They are also general probate issues such as estates and wills, as well as felony charges, and civil cases. At this level, magistrates may assist with processes of the court including pleas, preliminary hearings, warrants, and more.
In the past 10 years, civil matters have grown to occupy almost half of the court's docket, and criminal cases have receded from 25 percent to 18 percent of the court's caseload. Domestic issues have remained steady around 17 percent of the cases before the court. In fiscal year 2015 there were about 224,000 cases filed in district courts, comprised of about 101,000 civil and 40,000 criminal cases. Drug offenses constituted 26 percent of the criminal cases, and there were over 23,000 Driving Under the Influence cases (including Denver). There were about 1,250 jury trials conducted.
Colorado Court of Appeals
With the strange distinction of having been abolished and re-established twice since 1891, 22 judges preside over hearings in 3-person panels in this court. More limited than the courts of appeals in many other states, several types of appeals bypass this level and are heard directly by the Supreme Court, including questions of a law's constitutionality, death penalty appeals, Public Utility Commission appeals, state water court appeals, and more. It has jurisdiction over many appeals of district court decisions and many state administrative agencies' decisions.
The court has averaged about 1,000 criminal and 1,000 civil appeals in each recent year.
Colorado Supreme Court
A Supreme Court does not hear original testimony but considers the trial record and may take oral arguments from both sides in an appeal of a lower court decision. Seven judges preside over Colorado Supreme Court, the "'court of last resort" in the state. Judges were once elected by voters but for the past 50 years have been appointed by a nominating committee and approved by the governor. Most of the court's approximately 4,500 requests for hearings per year come from state appellate courts, but the Supreme Court also has jurisdiction over questions of constitutionality of laws, sentencing, judicial misconduct, certain appeals in current search and seizure cases, and matters concerning the state bar.
In the past 10 years, the Supreme Court has averaged about 1,500 case filings per year, with over 1,000 being requests to review decisions of lower courts. There were only two direct criminal appeals before the court in 2014-2015, and 242 original proceedings.
Colorado Notable Court Cases
The Colorado Board of Health rejected Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a disorder that can be treated by medical marijuana, prompting four military veterans and an assault survivor to appeal the decision to a higher court in 2016. Plaintiffs pointed out that many other states include PTSD in qualifying conditions that allow individuals access to medical marijuana, but a Colorado district court judge disagreed, affirming the Health Board's decision. The plaintiffs are appealing to the next level, state appeals court. The state has not expanded the list of ailments treatable by medical marijuana since the treatment was approved in 2000.
Despite bans at the local level and voter support, bans on fracking in Fort Collins and Longmont were struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2016. The five-year moratorium in Fort Collins and four-year voter-supported ban in Longmont had prohibited natural gas and oil recovery using the controversial method that injects the earth with a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals to free the desired materials. A judge threw out the fracking prohibitions when the laws were challenged in court by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, saying they were preempted by state law. When citizens appealed, the case went to the state Supreme Court. The state Attorney General was quoted in a newspaper account as saying the decision to allow fracking is in the state's best interest.