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Colorado’s high court visits DU

An attorney addresses the Colorado Supreme Court on Jan. 20. The court visited the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law as part of a community outreach program. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

The seven justices of the Colorado Supreme Court on Jan. 20 turned the Sturm College of Law’s mock courtroom into the highest court in the state for a day.

As part of ongoing community outreach efforts, the court moved from its stately chambers to the University of Denver to hear two cases, including a water law issue that law professor Don Smith said is the “Colorado water law case of the century.”

More than 160 students and attorneys packed the mock courtroom and a nearby overflow room where the hearings were broadcast on closed circuit television. While not everyone may have understood the technical arguments, students said they gained an understanding of the difficult task facing justices.

The water law case involves compacts developed for the Burlington Ditch, Reservoir and Land Co. and its use of the South Platte River northeast of Denver. Reflective of the old Western saying “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” the water compacts, which date back to 1885, have been the subject of lawsuits and legislative overhauls for more than a century.

Lawyers for both sides threw around terms such as “storage rights,” “acre-feet” and “historical consumptive use” as they struggled to untangle issues that have been in play since land speculators sucked up water rights and transferred them to dry prairie land they hoped to sell in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kelly Reyes brought three of her teenage students from the Founders Commonwealth School as part of their studies on the Supreme Court. One of Reyes’ students Emily Bashaw, said she didn’t catch all the legal arguments but still learned plenty.

“With a case like that, you really see how much the justices have to know,” Bashaw said. “It’s so many different kinds of law, and they have to know all of it.”

First-year law student Chris Boeckx said that even as a law student, he shook his head at some of the terminology.

“It was brutal,” he said. “For the attorneys, it was really interesting to me to see how quickly they had to respond to the questions from the justices. That’s a real skill.”

And even for first-year student Jessica Bidgood, who studied environmental science and wrote a thesis on Western water law as an undergraduate, the technical arguments were a challenge. But she was pleased that the Court recognizes the importance of the case. 

“It’s nice to see that people really do care a lot about water in the western United States,” she said. “And it was very interesting to see how the nuts and bolts, all those details, get worked out in cases like this.”

The second case involved a driver who was in a crash, then let his girlfriend claim she was the driver. Even though he provided his name and contact information to authorities at the scene (as a passenger), he was later charged with leaving the scene of an accident. Because of his status as a habitual offender, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

His attorney, Deputy Public Defender Sarah Kellogg, argued that her client may have faced other charges such as filing a false police report, but he didn’t actually leave the scene of an accident without giving his name to police. Assistant Attorney General John Lee argued that the Colorado Legislature intended for the law to reflect that drivers have a duty to identify themselves as the driver in a crash and by not doing that, he did actually leave the scene of a crash.

Justices grilled both attorneys and challenged their logic, peppering them with questions as the matter became a question of legislative intent.

“He really didn’t leave the scene, did he?” asked Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr. “It would help the police if he stepped forward and confessed, but does he have to do that?”

Justices adjourned without ruling. A court spokesman said rulings can take anywhere from a week to a few months, depending on the complexity of the issue and the research involved.

DU Law Dean Martin Katz welcomed the standing-room crowd to the proceedings and said a visit by the Supreme Court gives students a front-row seat to the jobs they’ll be tackling when they leave DU.

“This is a great event for us,” he said. “We are committed to bringing our students even closer to being practice-ready when they leave here.”

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