Email lays out several incidents where judges harass, intimidate or retaliate against colleagues
An Adams County district court judge last year demanded an investigation into a variety of inappropriate conduct — some of it threatening — by other judges, including the chief judge, which she says has been occurring there for years.
In a 10-page, single-spaced email to the top lawyer for the Colorado Judicial Department, District Judge Sharon Holbrook in September 2019 laid out several examples of “retaliation, fraud, harassment, sexual harassment, and threatening behavior” by a number of judges, some now-retired, she said have been condoned or ignored within the 17th Judicial District since at least 2017.
The allegations, known publicly for the first time, are the latest in a string of issues involving judges and their conduct in the judicial district that encompasses Adams and Broomfield counties. It is composed of 16 district court judges and nine county court judges, all appointed by the governor, and is the fourth largest in the state.
In her email to Terri Morrison, the department’s chief legal counsel, Holbrook recounts several incidents of misconduct by other judges that were the result of Holbrook and two other female judges jointly filing a formal complaint against another judge. One incident led to state investigators warning the three women about concerns for their safety. Another incident included muttered “sexist nicknames” from males judges that included “mean girls” and a common slur referring to women.
The three women had co-filed the complaint after senior judges in the district and human resource personnel did nothing about it. The judge was eventually admonished privately for his behavior by the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, but his name was never made public, and he remains on the bench.
Holbrook also wrote to Morrison that at one point another female judge “begins to come into Holbrook’s office as often as possible … to prevent (verbal) abuse” whenever a particular male judge was there, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Post.
The Denver Post spoke with several other judges and courthouse personnel who either witnessed the incidents first-hand or were told about them after they occurred. All of them spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution or were concerned for their job.
Holbrook’s allegations included other incidents of judicial conduct already detailed in Denver Post stories over the past several weeks. The Post last month wrote of a district court judge who described similar problems within the judicial district. Voters on Nov. 3 chose not to retain that judge, Tomee Crespin, who alleged she was the target of a systemic campaign to drive her out. Her term ends in January.
Holbrook’s email also mentioned an inquiry into a judicial laptop containing pornographic images that was kept from law enforcement, which The Post reported about last month.
“There are more than two years worth of HR (human resource department) complaints and exit interviews that substantiate” her allegations, Holbrook wrote Morrison.
Although much of the behavior in Holbrook’s email occurred under former Chief Judge Patrick Murphy, who retired in July 2019, she wrote that it was an incident last summer with current Chief Judge Emily Anderson that prompted Holbrook to step forward and finally demand a general inquiry.
Holbrook described frustration with a process that treats judges differently than other state employees because they are constitutional officers appointed by the governor and not subject to the same rules as others.
“I have complied with the reporting requirements of HR. You can probably understand my frustration at the lack of responsiveness to a serious situation,” Holbrook wrote Morrison. “I hope that my situation can be addressed and corrected in a way that does not create further damage to our branch, but instead offers meaningful solutions.”
A department memo circulated among judges statewide in late October now requires all complaints by any judge regarding another judge be filed with the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline within the state Supreme Court.
It’s unclear whether Holbrook or Morrison took the matter to the disciplinary commission because its inquiries are secret and its sanctions frequently do not identify the judge.
Holbrook, who has consistently received high marks from the district’s judicial review committee, did not respond to Denver Post efforts to reach her.
Morrison, through a department spokesman, said she is “not at liberty to discuss matters pertaining to her role as legal counsel.”
In the incident with Anderson, Holbrook said the chief judge refused her suggestion to discuss an issue at a more convenient time and called Holbrook “an inappropriate name and jabbed her finger at my face,” according to the email.
Holbrook wrote that after she went to her own office and closed the door, Anderson knocked, then “put her foot in the door trying to open it and force her way in” when Holbrook answered, according to the email. Holbrook wrote that she reported the incident to the department’s HR director and later told Anderson to stop writing emails that tried to “re-write the history of the event.”
Anderson told The Post that Holbrook hasn’t made any complaints to her or district administrators regarding other judges and that Holbrook was lying about their interaction.
“Judge Sharon Holbrook’s description of the conversation is untrue,” Anderson wrote in an email to The Post. “Not one thing she says happened actually occurred.”
Anderson said she’s committed to seeing all the judges in the district succeed — including Holbrook.
“I am committed to overseeing an inclusive bench in the 17th District, and I stand on my 30-year record of helping women and diverse attorneys become leaders and judges and successes in the legal profession,” she wrote The Post. “This record includes helping, supporting, and lifting up Judge Holbrook over several years.”
Troubles start in 2017
The harassment Holbrook and other judges in the district say they experienced began in late 2017 when she first approached Murphy about the district judge they would eventually file the formal complaint about.
“Over the next several months, many other district court judges would go to (Murphy) to also complain about (the judge),” the email says. “When it was clear that nothing would be done — and after a female magistrate had come to me crying and asking for help — myself and two other female judges filed a complaint with the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline.”
That complaint, filed in March 2018, contained allegations of inappropriate conduct with female interns, misuse of court scheduling calendars for personal benefit, and inappropriate demeanor with staff and colleagues, according to the email.
“This set the stage for the retaliation and hostility that would be pervasive for us over the next two years, and that continues today,” Holbrook wrote.
Murphy refused to comment about the inquiry, telling The Post it was a “private matter.”
During the commission’s inquiry, other judges “begin to give whistleblowers everything from cold shoulder to outright hostility,” Holbrook claimed in the email.
Holbrook’s email outlines “almost daily” visits by Murphy to her office. At one point Holbrook “is crying, asking him to stop.”
Finally, two investigators for the disciplinary commission contact Holbrook and the two other judges who filed the complaint to say they’re looking into “Murphy regarding retaliation against” the judges.
“They cannot disclose any details, but they are so concerned for the safety of the whistleblowers that they give them their direct numbers to call if needed,” Holbrook wrote. “They indicate that this circumstance is rare, to their knowledge this has never happened before in an investigation of this nature.”
Said Murphy in an email to The Post: “I never retaliated against anyone.”
In another incident describing inappropriate conduct by male judges, Holbrook wrote that in September 2019 she was cornered in her office by a male county court judge unhappy about a contrary opinion she expressed at a meeting of several judges earlier that day.
It took a male magistrate to convince him to leave, according to
Holbrook’s email. She said a commander with the Adams County Sheriff’s
office assigned to the courthouse told her that she “should have pulled
the security button as the encounter was scary, threatening and meets
the definition of the crime of false imprisonment.”