Civil rightsNews

Colorado House Republicans offer amendments to remake civil rights commission

Author: Marianne Goodland - February 20, 2018 - Updated: February 21, 2018

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Charlie Craig, left, and David Mullins touch foreheads after leaving the Supreme Court which is hearing the case, the ‘Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission’ today, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday voted 10-1 to draft a bill to extend the Colorado Division of Civil Rights and the civil rights commission for nine more years. House Republicans offered six amendments that attempted to make sweeping changes to the commission, without success.

All of the Republican amendments failed on a 4-7 party-line vote.

The Colorado Division of Civil Rights and the civil rights commission, which is part of that agency, are up for renewal in the 2018 legislative session. A sunset review conducted by the Department of Regulatory Agencies recommended the commission and division continue for another nine years.

Republicans attempted to change how the commission is appointed and its authority. One amendment, offered by House Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist of Centennial, would make the commission’s sole purpose to investigate and research discrimination, and strip it of its ability to hold hearings or review appeals.

The hearing function would stay in statute but discrimination cases would go to an administrative law judge and hence wouldn’t take away the rights of a complainant to have his/her case heard, Wist said. But without its hearing authority, one Democrat said the change would make the commission little more than an academic body.

Another amendment would change the commission makeup, according to Rep. Terri Carver of Fountain. Currently, the governor makes all seven appointments. Under her amendment, two would be appointed by the governor, two by the Speaker of the House, two by the Senate President and the last from the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court. Four of the appointees would be members of groups “who have been or might be discriminated against” because of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, marital status, religion or age.

Carver also proposed an amendment that would require four of the seven members as licensed attorneys or former judges.

An amendment offered by Rep. Yeulin Willett of Grand Junction sought to ensure that members of the commission are subject to the standards of conduct set by the Colorado code of judicial conduct. Wist said administrative law judges are held to that code, but the commission is not, although it makes quasi-judicial rulings. Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument asked that the commission be extended five years instead of nine, as recommended in the sunset review.

While the amendments may not have succeeded in the judiciary committee, it’s a good bet that at least some of those amendments, and perhaps others, may surface again in the committee, on the House floor or if and when the bill makes it to the Senate.

Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver offered the only successful amendment, to simply extend the commission and division for nine more years, without other recommendations submitted in the sunset review. Committee co-chair Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton said Democrats hoped offering a “clean bill” without the other recommendations, which included heightened fines for discrimination based on complaints involving public accommodations, would make the bill palatable to Republicans, especially those in the Senate.

The public accommodations issue is what started the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, a Lakewood baker refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, based on his Christian views. The commission ruled in favor of the couple, as did the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, allowing the lower court ruling to stand. The baker, Jack Phillips, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the appeal last December. Under Colorado law, public accommodations include Places of public accommodation where discrimination cannot take place include restaurants, hospitals, hotels, retail stores and public transportation.

Willett was the lone Republican on the judiciary committee to vote against the sunset bill. He said the bill doesn’t address the improvements Republicans want to see in the commission. The bill as amended “stifles our ability to make a somewhat broken system workable.”

Noting he represents the most diverse city in the state, Democratic Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora said he looked at the question of renewing the commission and division somewhat differently. “We in this body believe in continuing this entity, or we don’t. I understand [Republicans] want to see things changed. So do I.”

But the sunset bill, and possibly ending the commission and division might not be the best way to do that, Weissman said. He pointed to incidents in the past year and a half, like the “N” word being spray painted on people’s doors, or Hispanic families being targeted because of their ethnicity. “To me it underscores the importance of standing up, plainly, without reservation, without quibble, for civil rights enforcement, especially now…it is very important for all of us to send an unambiguous signal out of this body that we stand for continued enforcement. Period.”

Earlier this month, the Joint Budget Committee deadlocked on a 3-3 party-line vote over continuing to fund the commission and division for 2018-19. Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud said Republicans wanted to wait to see what happened with the sunset bill before setting a budget for the agency in the next fiscal year. If the sunset bill fails to pass, the commission and division would expire on July 1, 2018.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver will be the bill’s sponsor, once it comes back from drafting from the legislature’s attorneys.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.