Adams County District judge says she’s a victim of racial and professional bias to push her off the bench
An Adams County district judge facing ouster says nearly from the day she began, she’s been the target of a relentless campaign of racial and professional bias by peers and members of the commission tasked with reviewing her judicial performance.
District Judge Tomee Crespin, in a rare break from the judicial silence that normally envelopes the profession, outlined to The Denver Post a series of events she says prove she’s been an unwelcomed member of the 17th Judicial District – leading to a recommendation she not be retained on the bench – and referred to higher-ups, including the state’s chief justice of its Supreme Court, an array of complaints she said were either ignored or pushed aside.
From text messages from the district’s chief judge that Crespin says made her uncomfortable, to an attorney Crespin says has a personal ax to grind but was kept in charge of her retention evaluation anyway, Crespin believes she never stood a chance.
“Over the past two years they have refused to acknowledge the systemic racism and favoritism in the branch,” Crespin told The Post. “We (judges) are to be held to a higher standard of ethics and have a duty to report unethical behavior. Yet we don’t say anything despite the obligation to do it, because if you do, you pay for it.”
The commission tasked with evaluating Crespin’s performance roundly criticized her for having a poor courtroom demeanor, relying predominantly on anonymous comments. And despite agreeing to improve by taking on additional classes and tutelage, she was still told she still wasn’t measuring up. Crespin is the only district judge in Colorado facing retention in November who was rated as not meeting professional standards by her district’s commission on judicial performance. The main reason given by the commission: a poor courtroom demeanor. Yet The Post found several cases where other judges facing retention the past few years performed more poorly than Crespin, yet were recommended to keep their jobs.
Only one other judge in the state is also not recommended this election: A county judge in Sedgwick County, largely because he has no formal legal training or experience before he became a judge, commission records there show.
Although the 10-member judicial review commission in the 17th District this summer voted 5-3 against Crespin, a recommendation that goes to every registered voter in Adams and Broomfield counties, two non-attorney members of the panel didn’t vote because they never participated in the process.
A 5-5 review commission vote is considered a vote of confidence for a judge, according to the rules that govern the process. Neither of the commissioners who did not participate – Legacy High School science teacher Sheryn Caldwell and Brighton businessman Gary Mikes – responded to Denver Post efforts to reach them.
“I don’t look like the other judges or sound like them, and I never will,” Crespin told The Post, noting she acquiesced to the commission’s request for her to undertake a performance place in December 2019 to improve her initial scores. “But to make me conform to the traditional view of what a judge is, (the commission) required the performance plan, additional judge training, lectures, seminars, communication training. I did it all. You don’t fight back, you don’t advocate for yourself because you’ve worked so hard to get there.”
Crespin is annoyed that despite her success with a performance plan designed to make her a better judge, she’s had precious few months on it before the commission began to review her for retention in February 2020.
In years they are to face retention by voters, district and county judges are rated in an anonymous survey of lawyers and non-attorneys who have appeared before them. An outside company compiles the results. The surveys ask opinions on a variety of topics and score the judges on a scale of 1 to 5 for each. Those surveys and any comments are provided to the commissioners as well as the judge being evaluated.
In the past, more than 100 people typically responded to a survey about a judge and offered an array of opinions that many judges have said they found helpful because attorneys and non-attorneys were generally equally represented. Non-attorneys include jurors, litigants, or anyone else appearing in a courtroom including staff.
This year was different. While attorneys still got a mailed copy, the Colorado Commissions on Judicial Performance chose to save money and reach non-attorneys by email. It also sent text messages about the electronic survey and gave jurors postcards with a website address as they completed their court service.
The response rate was abysmal.
Some judges, like Crespin, had only a single non-attorney take the survey, records show. The result, Crespin said, is a flawed survey heavily weighted toward attorneys and not a complete or honest picture of a judge’s performance. In her interim survey, for instance, she scored well among non-attorneys.
It doesn’t appear that the 17th Judicial District commission applies the surveys uniformly. For example, The Post found that Crespin’s latest scores on nearly every level of performance were superior to other judges who had been declared suitable for retention the past few years, a review of those reports show.
For instance, the commission in 2018 said Adams County Court Judge Cindy Hoang-Ha Thi Dang met performance standards and should be retained even though Dang had scored lower than Crespin in all five categories she was evaluated on by attorneys, including demeanor. Eight members of the commission were the same for Dang as for Crespin.
In Dang’s review, only 19% of the 65 attorneys surveyed thought she was capable enough to remain a judge. For Crespin, it was 39% of 26 attorneys. And like Crespin, Dang was placed on a performance plan “to address some of her lower survey scores” at the time, according to a letter sent to the district commission by a judge who chose to point out the discrepancies.
More than 60% of the voters that year chose to retain Dang.
District and county judges are to be evaluated in the same manner with no difference in the criteria, Kent Wagner, executive director of the Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation within the Colorado Commissions on Judicial Performance, said.
It was the same for Adams County Court Judge Dianna Roybal. She was recommended for retention in both 2010 and 2014 with scores that were fractionally better than Crespin, according to the surveys. As with Crespin, the commission said it was concerned about below-average survey scores from attorneys and, in response, Roybal attended extensive classes to improve. Voters retained Roybal both elections. She retired in July 2020.
“Why the disparities, then, in the outcomes for myself, the other criminal judges, and Judge Crespin?” 17th District Judge Sharon Holbrook wrote the commission in July 2020, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. “I fear that the answer is pervasive and the most insidious reason for Judge Crespin’s survey results. … Of the lowest scores in our district over the last eight years, all of the judges were women, and all were minorities.”
Holbrook, who was a judicial mentor to Crespin, did not respond to Denver Post efforts to reach her for this story.
In all, Holbrook’s letter to the commission listed more than a dozen other judges who were recommended for retention since 1992 with scores worse than Crespin.
Crespin told The Post that the problem was actually much worse than the surveys.
She said she was being targeted to fail.
A newcomer to the court
When Crespin was appointed to the bench in late 2016 by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, it was the culmination of a legal career that blossomed as an undergraduate at Metropolitan State College of Denver and later the University of Denver College of Law. She took her oath in January 2017.
An Adams County native who managed through the early death of both parents, Crespin determinedly worked toward a goal of becoming a judge through stints as an assistant district attorney, then as an associate judge in municipal courts in Commerce City, Brighton and Lakewood.
“Many of our culture grew up poor, in a fractured family and I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve accomplished,” Crespin said. “To finally be appointed after trying for so many years and for so long, and the reality of how I got there. This is my home and I’m proud to be from here.”
It wasn’t odd, she said, to have other members of the 17th Judicial District court reach out after her appointment and begin to welcome her into the fold. It was comforting and made her feel at ease.
“We are so excited,” then-District Judge Emily Anderson, now the 17th’s chief judge, texted Crespin in December 2016. “I am having you over for dinner when I get home to get you ready!”
Over the next several months, Anderson and Crespin became friendly, visited with each other, shared dinners, texted comments about their day.
“She was taking me under her wing, it seemed, to help and mentor,” Crespin said.
And then came a text that stopped Crespin in her tracks.
“I am blowing this taco stand,” Anderson texted on April 27, 2017, telling Crespin she was heading home from the courthouse in anticipation of a shopping trip for a recreational vehicle the next day.
“Nice,” Crespin texted in reply. “RV’ing sounds fun!”
“We want one with new safer technology in the future and it is fun to shop for them!” Anderson replied. “See you tamale.”
Crespin replied: “Hahaha … auto correct???” she texted. “Or did you call me tamale?????hahaha”
Anderson was quick to respond: “No, my friend Annie says it for ‘tomorrow’ and I forgot you haven’t heard me say that lol,” she wrote. “See u tamale.”
Crespin replied: “Too funny. I like it!!! See you tamale.”
Anderson texted back: “See it is catchy.”
In retrospect, Crespin said she should have told Anderson it was disparaging and stopped her from ever using the phrase again. She didn’t.
“I wanted her to continue to like me and be nice to me,” she explained when The Post asked why she allowed it to continue, even giving tacit approval by reiterating it. “We were friends and I didn’t think she’d make comments like that. I honestly thought it was auto-correct. I didn’t think of it at all. I just let it go. What’s the point? She’s being nice to me and it didn’t seem like a big deal.”
Then a week later, Anderson texted Crespin about how the judges were contributing toward a card and gift for a co-worker.
“Don’t worry about paying me back,” Anderson texted Crespin on May 5, 2017. “You can buy me a taco sometime tamale.”
She quickly added: “No I am not calling you a tamale lol”
Crespin responded: “Thanks tamale. Tacos on me … soon. Have a great weekend!!!”
Crespin cringes when asked why she allowed it to continue.
“She’s well-connected,” Crespin said of Anderson. “You just leave it, you get used to it. It’s been my whole life people saying stuff like that. You just let it go. I wanted to fit in with her.”
Anderson would use the word “tamale” at least four more times in text messages to Crespin over the next several weeks, according to copies of those texts provided to The Post – but so did Crespin.
“In my mind, it became sort of a pet name,” Crespin told The Post. “Now, I’m ashamed I let someone do that to me.”
Anderson told The Post in an email that the words were not intended to be hurtful, and that she had used them with Judge Holbrook as well.
“I never intended that the word ‘tamale’ to be a racially charged or insensitive term,” she wrote The Post. “In turn, I never thought the term was used insensitively in the texts sent to me from Judge Crespin and Judge Holbrook. I picked up the phrase from a friend who had seen it on a sitcom and had previously said it to me. I thought it was catchy and didn’t think much more about it.”
She added: “Judge Crespin had previously mentioned taking me to her favorite place to eat tacos in Commerce City. … Neither Judge Crespin nor Judge Holbrook raised with me that the term ‘tamale’ was insensitive or that having tacos for lunch was also insensitive.”
A number of other issues emerged over the next couple of years that began to move the two judges even further apart, Crespin said.
Much of it began when Anderson was a candidate to replace retiring Chief District Judge Patrick Murphy in 2019. Crespin had aligned with other judges to support a different candidate, one with greater seniority and broader experience on the bench.
But in April 2019, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Coates chose Anderson.
“At a meeting of the judges shortly after, Anderson made it very clear we were on the outs,” Crespin recalled. “Looking at us, she said she understood she didn’t have unanimous support and that there were ‘Weeds in the district that need to be pulled.’ We knew who she meant.”
Anderson told The Post the comment is out of context and inaccurate and instead said the challenges she inherited from her predecessor “were like a weedy garden that had not been tended to for a long time.”
“I never said or implied that judges who did not support me were ‘weeds who needed to be pulled,’” Anderson wrote.
Still, at another meeting between Crespin and Anderson, the latter promised there was no animosity between them.
“I’m aware that there’s some strong feelings that I got the job … and it’s been a little rocky,” Anderson told Crespin in June 2019, according to a recording of that meeting provided to The Post. “But it will no way ever impact me wanting to see you succeed.”
Nevertheless, Crespin said she was excluded from participating in select committees with the other judges to better the performance and training in the district. And emails to all the judges discussing changes to court processes inexplicably left Crespin out, according to copies provided to The Post.
Anderson explained much of it away as inadvertent, according to emails between Crespin and Anderson provided to The Post. But there were other hints that concerned Crespin. Anderson was supervising Crespin’s performance plan and counseled her to reconsider her courtroom demeanor.
“How do I get my point across as a petite younger, Latina woman,” Anderson advised Crespin to consider. “Where the guys can say these things and I can’t get away with it.”
At another meeting, Anderson made it clear that Crespin’s ethnicity could factor into how she’s viewed on the bench and evaluated by others.
“Women are graded differently on their judge evaluations,” Anderson told Crespin. “Women of color are graded differently than white women. And it goes on, you know.”
And another time, Anderson was blunter: “You are a brown woman. Your last name is Crespin. Statistically … it’s harder for you than it is for me. … And you are petite.”
In her response to The Post, Anderson she that “as a judge from the LGBTQ community, I am particularly sensitive to being marginalized.
“Implicit bias issues were a frequent topic” in meetings with other judges about the challenges they faced, Anderson wrote. “It is an unfortunate fact that female judges may be criticized for the way they sound, their hair, make-up, and even hormonal changes. … It was in the context of the both of us talking about implicit bias that women face that I noted Judge Crespin is a ‘petite Latina.’”
Crespin said she finally asked Chief Justice Coates in an email to appoint a different judge to oversee her performance plan. She got no reply.
“My concern is that nothing’s being done about the racist comments she’s made to me and the retaliation,” Crespin told Terri Morrison, legal counsel for the state court administrator’s office, during a February 2020 telephone call, a recording of which was provided to The Post. “It sounds like the only thing (Coates) is concerned about, that you guys are concerned about, is the performance review. I’m obviously concerned about that, but I’m concerned about being here every day and receiving that kind of treatment.”
Eventually, Wagner of the state judicial commission would supervise her performance plan.
“I basically told (Wagner) that I felt unsafe around her, in this retaliatory racist behavior,” Crespin told The Post. “The rules of human resources don’t apply to judicial, to judges, and we have no recourse.”
The review process
Commissioners named to a district’s judicial review board are appointed to a four-year term that can be renewed once. Appointments of the four attorneys on the 10-person board are made by the chief justice, who gets two, and one each by the Legislature’s senate president and speaker of the house.
The six non-attorney members are chosen by the governor, who gets two, the Senate president and House speaker each get one, as do the Senate minority leader and the House minority leader.
Anyone who is a Colorado citizen can be on the commission, and attorneys must be licensed and in good standing to practice in the state.
The all-volunteer commission’s task is to evaluate sitting district and county court judges to determine whether they meet performance standards for an upcoming retention election.
And their decision carries some weight. Since 1990, commissions have not recommended a judge for retention just 24 times out of 1,559. Of those, voters sent 10 of them packing. And of the more than 1,500 judges whose retention was recommended, just four weren’t.
The commission’s work is secret and its meetings are not open to the public. Evaluations are done over several months and commissioners hear from a district’s chief judge, the district attorney, the public defender’s office, and the judge who is being evaluated.
When Crespin sat before the 17th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance in June 2019, it was clear that the initial survey results of more than 100 people indicated a problem. It was Crespin’s first evaluation, an interim survey that’s done just before a judge faces retention. It’s a barometer on how things are going since making it to the bench – a chance to test the temperature.
Scores reflected a poor courtroom demeanor, a harshness of tone that some found off-putting.
Crespin chalked it up to inexperience with working the other side of the bench, a tendency for many new judges, according to several people interviewed by The Post.
A performance plan was likely, commissioners said, and Crespin said she chose to embrace it rather than challenging it.
“I don’t fit the typical mold of a judge, but if that’s what I needed to do to stay here, then that’s what needed to happen,” she told The Post.
During a commission meeting, chairperson Molly Jansen, an attorney well-known for having appeared on a television episode of Naked and Afraid Survivalist and who unsuccessfully ran for district attorney in the 17th in 2016, pressed Crespin about the survey scores and was clear what was expected of Crespin under a performance plan.
The committee’s intent, Jansen said, was to soften Crespin.
“I don’t think it serves anybody any justice here to sort of dance around what we’re trying to ask you to do,” she said. “What we really want to see you improve on is to be the warm and fuzzyish that you can be, that gives a little bit more sense of humanity in that courtroom, to all parties.”
By example, Jansen related a personal incident with Crespin in which a comment the judge made to one of Jansen’s clients caused the attorney problems.
“I had a case, very honestly, where you told my client he was a 3-year-old and I got reamed in the hallway,” Jansen said. “My client was like, ‘I should fire you because that judge, she just screwed me over.’ That is not a position we should be in and that was just unfortunate.”
Jansen told The Post she never considered she had a personal conflict with any judicial review she participated in.
“At no time during any of the interviews was there a conflict of interest or a requirement to recuse myself from any judge during the review process,” Jansen emailed The Post.
While the commission was cobbling together a performance plan for Crespin, Jansen was facing the state Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, the part of the Colorado Supreme Court that disciplines lawyers.
On Oct. 25, 2019, that office suspended Jansen for a year and a day after she admitted to 11 ethical and professional violations that largely involved clients’ money, according to OARC records. That suspension was immediately set aside provided Jansen stay out of trouble for two years. The agreement included a requirement for an outside attorney to monitor her legal files regularly.
Essentially, Jansen was facing her own performance plan just as she was helping to create one for Crespin. Jansen said she saw no conflict in that.
Crespin said she learned of Jansen’s discipline troubles months later when another judge facing his own retention evaluation questioned how Jansen could remain on the commission.
“It’s the hypocrisy of (Jansen) telling me I have to improve while she’s on a plan herself,” Crespin told The Post. “She’s appeared before me on several cases and she says one of my decisions caused problems with her clients. Clearly, there’s a bias here on many levels.”
Wagner later determined “he had no concerns about Molly Jansen continuing to serve, that she is admitted to practice law in Colorado and is an attorney for the purposes of her role on the commission as one,” according to an email Anderson sent the district judges in April 2020.
The goals change
When Crespin appeared before the commission in June 2020, she said the retention interview focused on whether her demeanor had changed. She said she offered the commission members hundreds of hours of courtroom video for them to witness her improved demeanor, largely because COVID-19 restricted anyone from being in the courtroom. None accepted, Crespin said.
Jansen, however, sounded reassuring and encouraging.
“We’re not out here to give this feedback to take you down or (that) we have it out for you,” Jansen told Crespin during the online virtual interview, a recording of which was provided to The Post. “We just really want you to have the best experience that you can have on this bench and we’re here to help guide you in that process. We know the stakes here. We appreciate the efforts you’ve made.”
When the commission issued its final report about Crespin in August 2020, it acknowledged the performance plan, but claimed she’d done poorly: “The expectation was that she would show significant effort and improvement in the areas raised in that plan; a review by the Commission indicates that has not occurred.”
It said there were other concerns, none of them discussed with Crespin, she said.
“…Surveys raised serious questions about whether Judge Crespin effectively applies the law to the facts, finding that she did not always base her decisions on the evidence and arguments made before her.”
In fact, records show Crespin’s decisions were rarely overturned in her four years on the bench – the two reviewed by The Post were family-court matters involving money.
In response, Crespin filed a formal complaint with Wagner’s office noting a number of discrepancies between earlier surveys and the commission’s current criticisms, as well as a variety of violations of its own rules. Crespin identified six key areas in which she said the commission either failed to give her a fair shake or violated those rules. The first was Jansen.
Jansen’s “discipline was issued … during the term of my retention review period,” Crespin wrote in the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Post through a public-records request. She also noted Jansen’s conflict of interest when commenting about her disgruntled client.
“This personal connection and bias should have been cause for her recusal … as such biased sentiment was raised constantly,” according to the complaint.
Other than the concerns about demeanor, the commission never asked Crespin to improve in any other area.
“The rule requires that the survey report data be provided accurately,” Crespin wrote in her complaint. “The narrative fails to do so.”
In its response to the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, the commission called Crespin’s concerns “unfortunate.”
“It is unfortunate that Judge Crespin believes the process was unfair or that the commission was biased against her,” the five-paragraph response said. “The commission rejects this charge.”
The response did not specifically address any of Crespin’s complaints, instead asserting the commission did its job carefully and deliberately.
“There were no conflicts of interest on the committee, nor were there any hidden agendas or relationships,” it said. “There was no undue pressure from anyone on the committee or outside the committee.”
On Sept. 1, 2020, the State Commissions on Judicial Performance took up Crespin’s complaint and said it wouldn’t ask for any changes to the district commission’s narrative. Additionally, it found the district commission violated a pair of rules when it didn’t provide Crespin timely copies of reports. There was no sanction.
It did not address the Jansen issue.
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