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Colorado Supreme Court strikes down Pueblo Co. judge’s mediation order for violent offender

PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- In January 2021, a man deemed a habitual offender is accused of leading Pueblo Police on a dangerous chase through a mobile-home park while shooting at them. That man's case has been at the center of a legal battle between a sitting district judge and the Pueblo County District Attorney ever since.

In the last two years, 40-year-old James Justice has faced charges in court tied to four felony charges that happened while he was out on bond.

However, Pueblo County District Judge Allison Ernst ordered "mediation" in his cases, which required the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office to engage in plea negotiations with Justice's attorneys in the presence of a third party.

This order was vehemently opposed by Pueblo County District Attorney Jeff Chostner.

"The judge was very interested in seeing mediation take place," DA Chostner told 13 Investigates. "It was my judgment that the parties were so far apart that mediation was not going to be an effective process in this particular case, and that all it would do is slow down our ability to take the case to court and have it resolved by a jury."

Ernst wrote in her order that she was requiring the parties to make "a good faith attempt to see if there’s some way to work these cases out," after they have been delayed numerous times. Ernst wrote that mediation was "worth a morning or afternoon of the time of the parties" because trying the cases would take significant judicial resources, take up the time of community members to serve as jurors, and cited concern over under-staffing at the Pueblo County District Attorney's Office.

After Ernst's order, Chostner appealed it to the Court of Appeals and it ultimately was sent to the Colorado Supreme Court for a ruling decision.

In that decision, penned by Justice Carlos Samour, they ruled that "a trial court lacks the authority to order mediation in a criminal case."

"The Colorado Supreme Court very emphatically stated that a prosecutor cannot be forced to enter into mediation, and I use that when I don't think it's in the public interest, as I represent the people to be forced into a process and to be forced into mediation when I don't think it's in the best interest of public safety or the citizens of Pueblo County." DA Chostner said.

10th Judicial District Attorney Jeff Chostner

It is commonplace for prosecutors and defense attorneys to engage in plea negotiations throughout the court process. Chostner told 13 Investigates his office has engaged in mediation before in felony cases, but it has never been ordered by a judge before.

"In Pueblo County, mediation has been used as a device for criminal cases in the last five or six years," Chostner said. "There were some indications that El Paso County has been using it for longer than that and with some success."

In Justice's case, Chostner said they engaged in good faith plea negotiations with his attorneys, but said out of the interest of public safety, they were not willing to compromise on certain elements of a deal.

"Being forced into a process that I thought would have been fruitless was something that I thought was a waste of taxpayers' money, time, and ultimately the resolution of the case for our victims and for the community," Chostner said.

The Colorado Supreme Court's ruling has a wide impact on every single judicial district in the state and prevents judges from ordering mediation in criminal cases.

Chostner said he has the utmost respect for rulings given by judges in Pueblo County and that he has no interest in filing regular appeals, but argues at times it is a necessary recourse.

"They got it wrong in this case, and it was one that I thought we had to make a stand on. If we appeal a judge's ruling, I want to feel confident that we have the weight of the law behind us before we take that judge on," Chostner said.

13 Investigates reached out to the office of Judge Allison Ernst for her perspective on the ruling. Her office told our team she appreciates us reaching out, but respectfully declines the interview request "as under the Judicial Code of Conduct judges are not to publicly discuss cases."

Justice will be back in a Pueblo courtroom for another pre-trial hearing on March 15.

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Sean Rice

Sean is reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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