Legislators Axed from Judiciary Committee After Suing Colorado House | Westword

Legislators Removed From Judiciary Committee Months After Suing Colorado House Leaders

Representatives Elisabeth Epps and Bob Marshall accused House leadership of regularly breaking state law — but that's supposedly not why they were booted.
New committee assignments for the 2024 legislative session are out — with two surprising changes.
New committee assignments for the 2024 legislative session are out — with two surprising changes. Hannah Metzger
Share this:
Just five months after a pair of lawmakers sued the Colorado House of Representatives over alleged illegal meetings, they both have been axed from their positions on the prestigious House Judiciary Committee.

"Serving on a member’s top choice of committee is a privilege — not a right," House Speaker Julie McCluskie said in a statement Wednesday after releasing the committee assignments for next year's legislative session.

Rather than the lawsuit, McCluskie said she removed Democratic representatives Elisabeth Epps and Bob Marshall to address the "level of acrimony in the personal relationships on the committee." She alluded to conflicts that broke out between Epps and other legislators during last month's special session after Epps said "Free Palestine!" during her remarks on a bill.

The comment prompted yells and insults from Republicans. GOP Representative Ron Weinberg later responded in a speech on the floor, with Epps repeatedly yelling over Weinberg that he was "out of order." The disruption halted floor work for around an hour. At one point during talks with leadership, Epps shouted at Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Weissman, saying he had "failed and shamed us on Judiciary Committee this session."

"My decisions on where to appoint members depend on their respect of their colleagues, ability to collaborate, and adherence to decorum, which was clearly violated during our special session last month," McCluskie said in her Wednesday statement.

Regarding Marshall, she said his removal was intended "to help deliver the progressive outcomes our caucus is looking for." The District 43 rep is one of the most conservative Democrats in the legislature, representing a district that has never before elected a Democrat. Last session, he was often the only House Democrat to vote against progressive legislation, including bills to expand insurance coverage for abortion, provide mental health screenings in schools and cap interest rates on medical debt.

But with the Judiciary Committee holding a nine-to-four Democrat-Republican majority, Marshall's opposition could never single-handedly bring down progressive policies.

Marshall tells Westword he feels like he is being publicly "disciplined" by leadership.

click to enlarge Democratic Representative Bob Marshall of House District 43.
Democratic Representative Bob Marshall of House District 43.
Bob Marshall
"I've had colleagues express that it does seem like retaliation for the open-meetings lawsuit," Marshall says. "The speaker's comments [in a Colorado Sun article] made it sound like I was also being punished for personal issues or collaborative issues rather than what she had expressed to me."

Marshall says McCluskie told him he was being removed to move the committee in a more progressive direction and to have a more collaborative process. "I actually read all the bills and ask questions and don't just rubber-stamp things," Marshall says. "If that is considered not collaborative, then we've got a big problem."

McCluskie also removed Marshall as her designee on the State Board of Equalization a few weeks ago, he points out — though he says he's not certain the two dismissals are related.

Marshall and Epps filed the lawsuit in July, claiming legislators from both parties — with support from House leadership — regularly participated in gatherings that violated the Colorado open-meetings law. They alleged that the Democratic and Republican caucuses each held mandatory secret meetings at least weekly during the 2023 session, directing legislative aides to omit or disguise the meetings on legislators' calendars and using encrypted, automatically deleting messaging systems to discuss public business outside of public view.

The lawsuit was settled in September, with House leadership not admitting wrongdoing but agreeing not to violate the open-meetings law going forward. However, Epps claims the Judiciary Committee has continued to violate the law since that time.

"There are 65 members of the House, and as far as I know, only two of us objected to consistent, blatant, egregious violations of open meetings," Epps says. "There won't be anyone on the committee who will object to Representative Weissman continuing to violate open-meetings law."

Judiciary Chair Weissman disputes this, telling Westword: "I have not attempted to convene any quorum of members of the committee since [the regular session ended] for any reason, and I am not aware of any other such convening by anyone else for any reason. As the 2024 legislative session approaches, work of the committee will be in compliance with the law and the settlement reached earlier this year."

Epps says the policies that come out of the Judiciary Committee will probably be similar even without her and Marshall, but the "integrity" of the committee will be "wildly different" moving forward.

"Bob and I often cancel each other's vote out," Epps says. "But no one on the committee has shared my perspective as a survivor of someone who's currently in court. And Representative Marshall is consistently the most well-prepared, thoughtful, fair person on the committee. It's a real loss. ... There's not a lot of people in the legislature, much less that committee, who don't follow marching orders."

Epps declined to comment any further on the matter, saying, "I want folks to focus on Palestine; anything else is a distraction."

Without the Judiciary Committee, she and Marshall are two of only nine House Democrats who were assigned to just one committee this session: the Finance Committee for Marshall and the State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee for Epps. Of the other seven single-committee representatives, five hold leadership positions in the party or in a committee, meaning they were likely assigned just one to accommodate for their larger workloads. The remaining two are Representative Tim Hernández — a brand-new legislator entering his first session — and Representative David Ortiz, who is also known to clash with his legislative colleagues.

Though McCluskie did not attribute her decision to remove Epps and Marshall to their lawsuit, other legislators have been making the connection themselves.

House Minority Leader Mike Lynch applauded McCluskie's move in a statement Thursday, saying, "I am pleased that their blatant disregard for leadership and inability to work toward a solution to disagreements without litigation was not overlooked."

Republican Representative Ryan Armagost similarly called back to the lawsuit while celebrating Epps and Marshall's removal on social media, asking for McCluskie to go further. "The litigious lackeys and Hamas howlers need to be shut down with a little more intent than that or it won't stop," he said. "Let's be real... The gallery circus and podium theater need to be given some real circumstances."

Others criticized the move as retaliatory: Former Denver mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón wrote, "Retaliation against vocal Black women is such a frequent occurrence that bell hooks had a quote for it: 'Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don't see it, but because they see it and they don't want it to exist.'"

McCluskie also removed Representative Lindsey Daugherty from the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, after Daugherty asked to be taken off to focus on chairing the Health and Human Services Committee, according to the Colorado Sun. Democratic representatives Leslie Herod, Javier Mabrey and Judy Amabile were appointed to replace Epps, Marshall and Daugherty on the committee.

Legislators will reconvene for the 2024 session in their new committee assignments on January 10. 
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.