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Authority of Magistrate Judges in Colorado Family Law Cases
In general, magistrate judges are administratively appointed judges that have similar, but typically more limited roles in the judicial system than constitutionally elected or appointed judges. Specifically, in Colorado, traditional state court judges are appointed to the bench under Article VI of the Colorado Constitutions. Once appointed, a traditional state court judge remains subject to retention and removal by vote of the electorate.
In contrast, Colorado state magistrate judges are hired as at-will employees of the Colorado State Judicial Department and are under the supervision and direction of the chief judges for the respective judicial districts they work in. In comparison to traditional constitutionally appointed judges, magistrates are more akin to administratively appointed employees. Additionally, Colorado state magistrate judges are not subject to retention through public votes but, instead, can be hired and fired at the discretion of the Colorado State Judicial Department. See, e.g., C.R.S. § 13-3-105.
Notably, since magistrate judges are not appointed under the Colorado Constitution, their powers are more limited and, by way of example, they do not have the authority to conduct jury trials and dispose of civil cases. However, magistrate judges can, and most often are, used to handle procedural aspects of cases to help alleviate the workload of the court system. Some examples of the procedural aspects a magistrate judge may handle include presiding over discovery issues, presiding over scheduling conferences, and handling pre-trial matters.
Specific Functions of Magistrate Judges in Colorado Family Law Cases
Under Title 14 of the Colorado Revised Statutes (“C.R.S.”); that is, the title governing domestic matters in Colorado; dissolution of marriage and allocation of parental responsibility actions must be filed in district court in accordance with the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure. See C.R.S. § 14-10-106(1)(a); C.R.S. § 14-10-107(1). See also Pleyte v. Pleyte, 28 P. 2d (Colo. 1891).
Additionally, pursuant to the Colorado Rules for Magistrates (“C.R.M.”), district court magistrates are automatically permitted to preside over all proceedings arising under Title 14 except contested hearings which result in permanent orders concerning property division, maintenance, child support, or allocation of parental responsibilities. That is, magistrate judges can preside over almost all types of hearings in dissolution of marriage and allocation of parental responsibility actions without needing consent from the parties. See C.R.M. 6(b)(1)(A).
However, for contested hearings which result in permanent orders concerning property division, maintenance, child support, or allocation of parental responsibilities, a magistrate may preside over the hearing only if both parties consent. Accordingly, even contested permanent order hearing may be presided over by a magistrate judge if consent is given.
Importantly, consent to having the case heard by a magistrate can occur in multiple ways. In particular, parties may affirmatively consent by explicitly indicating that consent in writing or on the official record. Alternatively, consent can also be deemed to occur where a party fails to object to magistrate jurisdiction. That is, if a party has been provided notice of referral of the case to a magistrate and the party fails to file a written objection within 14 days of that notice, then consent will be implied based on the failure to object. See C.R.M. 3(f).
Additionally, for any proceeding where consent of the parties is required, notice of the case’s referral to a magistrate must be provided in order to give the parties an opportunity to object. That notice must be written or given orally to the parties while present in court and shall indicate that all parties must consent in order for the magistrate to preside over the hearing. Notably, if the notice is given while in court, then any party who is present and wishes to object to magistrate jurisdiction must do so at that time. In no objections are made, then each party will be deemed to have consented to the magistrate presiding over the hearing. See C.R.M. 5(g); C.R.M. 6(f).
Moreover, once permanent orders concerning property division, maintenance, child support or allocation of parental responsibilities domestic matter have been entered; a magistrate may preside over all motions to modify those orders with needing consent from the parties. That is, consent to magistrate jurisdiction is only needed for the initial entry of permanent orders where contested. See C.R.M. (b)(1)(B).
Further, on a related note, for civil issues related to a divorce proceeding, the parties may also consent to magistrate jurisdiction. In such circumstances, the magistrate judge may perform any function that could traditionally be done in a civil case except preside over jury trials. See C.R.M. 6(c)(2).
Review of Judgments or Orders Entered by a Magistrate Judge
Once an order or judgment is entered by a magistrate judge, there are various routes of review for that order or judgment depending on whether the parties consented to magistrate jurisdiction.
If the order or judgment was entered where consent to the magistrate was not necessary; that is, the magistrate judge automatically had the ability to preside over the case; review of that order or judgment by a district court judge may be sought by any party.
In contrast, where consent to the magistrate was necessary, such as in contested permanent orders hearings, and all parties consented; then the order or judgment is treated similarly to one entered by an appointed district court judge and review is available through the normal appellate process to the Colorado Court of Appeals. See C.R.M. 7(b).
In the first scenario, where consent was not necessary and the order or judgment may be reviewed by an appointed district court judge, a petition for review must be filed within 14 days after entry of the order if the parties are present when entry is made, or 21 days after entry of the order if it is mailed or otherwise transmitted to the parties. Notably, an extension of time to file a petition may be sought by filing a motion with the reviewing judge. See C.R.M. 7(a)(5).
If review by a district court judge is sought, the petition should state with particularity the alleged errors in the magistrate’s order or judgment. That is, the petition is similar to an appellate opening brief that outlines the alleged errors made in the lower court. Once a petition is filed, any other parties may file an opposing brief within 14 days after being served with the petition. See C.R.M. 7(a)(8).
Once a petition is submitted, the reviewing district court judge may issue a ruling on the petition and briefs alone, or may conduct further proceedings including taking additional evidence or having a new trial to the court. Importantly, however, findings of fact made by the magistrate may not be altered unless clearly erroneous and, if the petitioner fails to file a transcript of the proceedings, the reviewing judge is to presume that the record would support the magistrate’s order. See C.R.M. 7(a)(9).
Notably, if a magistrate order or judgment is entered for hearings where consent is not necessary, and review by a district court is not sought, then that order or judgment becomes the order or judgment of the district court and there are no further appellate remedies.
That is, for scenarios where a magistrate has automatic jurisdiction and consent is not necessary, in order to preserve all routes of appeal a magistrate’s order or judgment must first be reviewed by a district court judge and, after that has occurred, the parties may then appeal the order or judgment to the Colorado Court of Appeals. If review by a district court is not sought then the order or judgment is no longer appealable. See C.R.M. 7(a)(11).
© 2018 J.D. Porter, LLC. Author: Jordan Porter. Denver, Colorado.