Colorado judges threat to jail attorney prompts misconduct complaint

An Arapahoe County judge’s threat to throw an attorney in jail earlier this year prompted the lawyer to file a complaint with the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Denver Post.

Attorney Mark Cohen brought the complaint against 18th Judicial District Court Judge Peter Michaelson in April, after the judge told Cohen to bring a toothbrush to court so that he’d be more comfortable in jail, according to the complaint and a transcript of the hearing reviewed by The Post. Cohen alleges the judge’s comment was part of a larger pattern of rude and unprofessional behavior during a three-day civil trial in February.

Complaints to the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline are confidential under the state constitution — though Colorado voters will have a chance to change that next year — and the leaked complaint in this case offers a rare look into the early stages of the state’s secretive judicial discipline process.

It was not clear Thursday whether the Commission on Judicial Discipline opened an investigation into the allegations against Michaelson. Most complaints submitted to the commission are dismissed without investigation for procedural reasons, like a lack of jurisdiction or lack of evidence. The commission’s executive director, Chris Gregory, declined to comment Wednesday, citing the confidentiality rules.

Michaelson said Thursday that the Commission on Judicial Discipline has not notified him about the complaint. The commission typically will not notify judges about complaints if they are dismissed in the initial screening, though that screening process can take about a month. Cohen’s complaint was submitted in mid-April.

“I have not been notified that a complaint has been filed, have had no contact with the Commission on Judicial Discipline, and can’t respond more than to refer you to the complete record from pleadings to trial in this case,” Michaelson said in an email.

The judge in March alerted the Colorado Supreme Court that he would be resigning on Aug. 1. In his resignation letter, Michaelson said he was at times frustrated by a lack of resources in trial courts.

“I have felt frustration with how difficult it is for trial courts to get necessary resources, and the implicit and explicit threats to judges from within and outside the judicial department,” he wrote. “In my opinion, the proposed judicial ombudsman office is a good start in making everyone more accountable and reducing the almost unmanageable stress of our jobs.”

The judge expressed similar frustrations from the bench during the February civil trial, in particular noting that there was no court reporter assigned to the trial, a transcript shows. During the third day of trial, Michaelson repeatedly threatened to hold Cohen in contempt of court for presenting evidence that the judge felt was irrelevant, frivolous and baseless, according to the transcript.

“If you don’t respect the Court’s order about the relevancy of that aspect of this case again, you will be held in contempt,” the judge said. “And you better be thinking about bringing a toothbrush. Because Monday night, that might be what you need to make yourself a little bit comfortable in where I’ll send you. Do you understand me?”

The complaint says Michaelson’s clerk apologized to the attorneys for the judge’s behavior after the judge left the bench that day.

“(Michaelson) would claim to want to hear us offer our theories on our claims and defenses, but if we began to say anything he disagreed with, he would threaten to jail us. Thus we were unable to make a proper record,” Cohen wrote in his complaint, noting he has practiced law for nearly four decades. “…Like most lawyers, I have won some and I have lost some. But I have never experienced anything like this. The people of Colorado deserve better.”

Cohen declined to comment Thursday. In the complaint, he calls for Michaelson to be removed from the bench before his scheduled resignation this summer.

“You should not allow him to remain (on) the bench for more than three months while he ignores the law and uses his power to bully and punish others who want a fair shake,” the complaint reads.

If the Commission on Judicial Discipline decide to take action against a judge, the discipline can range from a private letter of reprimand to a public censure issued by the Colorado Supreme Court or removal from the bench. But it’s rare for judges in Colorado to be publicly disciplined. Only four judges faced public discipline between 2010 and 2020, according to state records.

In the last two-and-a-half years, amid mounting public scrutiny of the court system, that frequency has increased: a judge was censured in 2021 for using a racial slur, another judge was suspended for 30 days in 2022 after he threatened his stepson with an AR-15-style rifle during an argument, and so far this year two ex-judges have been publicly disciplined, one for making drunken sexual advances at a professional conference and the other for rude behavior from the bench. Another judge this year resigned amid an investigation of an extramarital affair he had with a clerk.

Michaelson was appointed as a district court judge in 2015. He previously served as the elected district attorney in the Fifth Judicial District from 1988 to 1996, and then took the bench as a part-time county court judge in Custer County, according to a resume posted online.

He last stood for retention in 2018, at which time the 18th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance unanimously recommended he keep his seat despite finding that some people who appeared before him “expressed significant concerns regarding demeanor.”

“Judge Michaelson brings a strong sense that the authority of the Court should be respected, which sometimes is interpreted as overly stern or rude,” the evaluation reads.  “While some attorneys, jurors and litigants praised him for his calm and respectful demeanor, others noted certain examples of curtness and at times abrasive and arrogant behavior, as well as a dismissive attitude towards the parties and issues before him.”

The evaluators at the time found that Michaelson was aware of the concerns and was working on bettering his demeanor.

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