The PDJ is appointed by the Colorado Supreme Court to preside over attorney discipline, attorney disability, unauthorized practice of law, and certain bar admissions cases. The PDJ’s office was created in 1999, when the Colorado Supreme Court instituted a new attorney regulation system in Colorado. In the new system, the hearing panel system was replaced with a judicial process overseen by the PDJ. The PDJ is one part of the lawyer regulation system, which encompasses a broad range of committees, appointees, and offices under the Colorado Supreme Court’s supervision and plenary authority. Cases heard by the PDJ are prosecuted by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel (“OARC”). Respondents may be represented by counsel, or they may represent themselves pro se. Cases in the courtroom are governed by Chapters 18, 19, and 20 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure and by the general rules of civil procedure.
The PDJ hears disciplinary cases initiated when the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel (“OARC”) files a formal complaint against a lawyer for alleged violations of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. In addition, the PDJ considers petitions filed by suspended or disbarred lawyers seeking reinstatement or readmission of law licenses. C.R.C.P. 251 and the civil rules of procedure govern these cases.
Within 21 days after service of a complaint by OARC, the respondent lawyer must file an answer admitting or denying each material allegation in the complaint. If not, a default on the merits of the case may enter, and the matter will be set for a hearing before the PDJ to determine the appropriate sanction.
After receiving an answer, the PDJ’s administrator normally contacts both parties by phone to select a hearing date. The PDJ then issues a scheduling order setting forth the hearing date as well as deadlines and standards for discovery, motions, disclosures, and submission of prehearing materials or a settlement agreement. The scheduling order governs the obligations of both parties in the case—please review this order if you have any questions about courtroom procedures in your case. Also at this stage of the case, the PDJ’s administrator selects at random from the hearing board pool the two hearing board members who will decide the case in conjunction with the PDJ. The PDJ and the hearing board together make findings of fact, and the PDJ makes all legal rulings. The Colorado Supreme Court has appointed a diverse and respected group of lawyers and nonlawyers to the hearing board pool. The pool has over 100 members who hail from across the state.
A respondent lawyer facing disciplinary charges has the right to fair notice of the charges and a right to be heard. OARC must prove charges by clear and convincing evidence. Respondent lawyers are not entitled to the full panoply of constitutional rights afforded a criminal defendant, however, so there is no right to an attorney at court expense. Even though the PDJ cannot appoint counsel, members of the Colorado Bar Association’s Ethics Committee in some instances may agree to represent lawyers facing disciplinary proceedings at no fee or a reduced fee. The PDJ’s office can provide a list of these attorneys to respondent lawyers upon request.
Often, parties benefit from engaging in alternative dispute resolution. This process uses lawyers who have experience in the law of professional ethics to act as mediators. A mediator’s recommendations are not binding on the parties, and the discussions are confidential. If the parties reach a settlement, they tender it to the PDJ, who may either accept or reject it.
Disciplinary hearings before a hearing board normally are open to the public. Because OARC has the burden of proof, it presents its case first in a hearing on a complaint. Each side may make an opening statement, introduce evidence, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and present a final argument. After the evidence and arguments are heard, the hearing board determines whether OARC proved any of its claims, and if so, the board decides the appropriate sanction to be imposed. That decision is guided by the framework established by the American Bar Association Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (1991 & Supp. 1992). The available sanctions include private admonition, public censure, probation, suspension, or disbarment. The final written opinion is normally released within 56 days of the hearing.
After the hearing board issues its opinion, either party may request posthearing relief. The parties have a right to appeal the opinion if the sanction imposed was a public censure, a served suspension, or a disbarment. A respondent lawyer may request a stay of imposition of the sanction pending appeal. Ordinarily a hearing board will grant a stay, except when no conditions of probation and supervision while the appeal is pending will protect the public, or when the lawyer has been immediately suspended. The Colorado Supreme Court will affirm the hearing board’s opinion unless it concludes that the findings of fact are clearly erroneous, the sanction imposed bears no relation to the misconduct, the sanction is manifestly excessive or insufficient, or the sanction is otherwise unreasonable.
A lawyer suspended from the practice of law for one year or less may be reinstated through a simplified affidavit process. A lawyer suspended for longer than one year must file a detailed petition for reinstatement. In a hearing before a hearing board, the lawyer then must show by clear and convincing evidence that he or she has been rehabilitated, has complied with disciplinary orders and rules, and is fit to practice law. A disbarred lawyer must follow the same procedure to seek readmission, as well as pass the written bar examination. Hearing board opinions on disciplinary cases, including reinstatement and readmission petitions, constitute orders of the Colorado Supreme Court unless the opinions are stayed, vacated, reversed, or otherwise modified. A hearing board’s conclusions of law, however, are not binding in other disciplinary cases. Opinions are published in Westlaw, Lexis, and the Colorado Lawyer, and disciplinary hearings are open to the public.
In addition to the disciplinary procedures outlined above, the PDJ may recommend in limited circumstances that the Colorado Supreme Court immediately suspend a lawyer’s license before a full hearing takes place, including where a lawyer has been convicted of a serious crime, has converted property or funds, or has abandoned clients.
Please note: The information provided above is an abbreviated summary provided for general reference purposes. This information is not legal advice. Please consult the applicable legal authorities or an attorney for more information on these subjects.