October 31, 2014

Colorado Supreme Court News: Two New Cases to Decide Seven Issues

Stuart-StullerBy Stuart Stuller

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to review two cases covering seven different issues, six of them raised in one case.

Criminal Sentencing Based on Prior Offenses

The case with one issue, Jarrod Ralph Rutter v. The People of the State of Colorado (No. 13SC523), focuses on Colorado’s habitual criminal sentencing statute under which the sentence of a person convicted of a crime is quadrupled if the person has three prior convictions of a certain class of crimes. Because the multiplier is formulaic, there is a possibility that the resulting sentence could be grossly disproportionate to the underlying criminal conduct, violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, such a sentence is subject to a proportionality review to determine whether it is constitutional.

Jarrod Rutter was convicted on charges relating to the manufacture of methamphetamine. Rutter had three prior convictions for possession and use of controlled substances, exposing him to the habitual criminal sentence enhancement. In the interim, the Colorado General Assembly had reduced possession and use drug crimes to misdemeanors, but if the crimes were felonies at the time of the fourth offense, they still would be counted toward habitual criminal status. With only the manufacture conviction, Rutter would have faced a 24-year sentence. Because of the possession and use offenses, Rutter’s sentence was quadrupled to 96 years.

Rutter argued that while the possession and use convictions could be counted toward the statutory sentence enhancement, the fact that the General Assembly had reduced the possession and use crimes to misdemeanors should be considered in the proportionality inquiry. The court of appeals, in an unpublished opinion by Judge Hawthorne, Judge Taubman concurring, rejected the argument. Judge Graham concurred in part and dissented in part.

School Vouchers

The six-issue case, Taxpayers for Public Education et al. v. Douglas County School District et al, (No. 13SC233), arises out of a statutory and constitutional challenge to a private school voucher program funded by the Douglas County School District under which public school funding is used to pay some students’ tuition at private schools, many of which are religious schools.

The statutory challenges are brought under the Public School Finance Act, which regulates the sourcing and distribution of funding for public education. The initial question is whether citizens have the ability, or standing, to raise such a challenge, an issue that the court held turned on whether the Finance Act gives rise to an implied private right of action.

If the Finance Act challenge is permitted, the next question will be whether the voucher program violates the Act by allowing the school district to include students who are enrolled in private schools in the enrolled student count that the district submits to the state for funding.

The remaining four questions focus on constitutional challenges brought under three different provisions of the Colorado Constitution.

One question extends to all three provisions, that is, whether the voucher program is entitled to a presumption of constitutionality that can be rebutted only by proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The first constitutional challenge is that the voucher program violates the constitutional provision that money from the state public education fund shall remain “inviolate and intact.” The trial court’s Judge Michael Martinez determined that state fund money, which comprises 2 percent of the funding received by the district, was diverted to private schools; therefore, this violated the constitution. The court of appeals, in an opinion by Judge Jones with Judge Graham concurring and Judge Bernard dissenting, relied on the constitutional presumption to assume that the voucher program was funded entirely with the remaining 98 percent of the district’s funding.

The second challenge arises from a provision in Colorado’s Bill of Rights that lacks both the brevity of the federal constitution’s religious clauses and the well-developed case law. The pertinent part of the provision states that no person shall be “required to attend or support any ministry, or place of worship, religious sect or denomination against his consent.” The trial court held that the program violated the Bill of Rights by using taxpayer money to support religious instruction. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the federal constitution forbids state constitutional law from turning on inquiries into the extent to which private schools are religious in character.

The final constitutional challenge is anchored to a provision that prohibits public entities from using public funds to support sectarian purposes using terms that go well beyond the usual constitutional proscription of “shall,” that is, the provision states in pertinent part that no public entity “shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund . . . anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose . . . whatsoever.”

Motions to exceed word and page limits are expected.

Stuart Stuller practices appellate, litigation, constitutional, employment discrimination, and education law. He regularly appears before both state and federal appellate courts and has played a substantial role in more than 30 cases that resulted in published decisions. He can be reached at sstuller@celaw.com.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

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