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Winston v. Polis.

2021 COA 90. No. 21CA0079.  Constitutional Law—Separation of Powers—Subject Matter Jurisdiction.

July 1, 2021

Plaintiffs are or were confined in Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) facilities. Plaintiffs sued the governor and the CDOC executive director seeking declaratory relief and an injunction requiring them to, among other things, implement various health and safety measures and reduce the population in CDOC custody. Plaintiffs reached an agreement with CDOC to alleviate some alleged risks and then amended their complaint to seek declaratory, injunctive, and mandamus relief against the governor. The trial court granted the governor’s motion to dismiss.

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the district court erred by concluding that the governor is not a proper defendant to their claim. The governor conceded this argument, and the Court of Appeals agreed. Accordingly, the district court erred.

Plaintiffs also argued that the district court erred in concluding that the separation of powers doctrine deprived it of jurisdiction to order injunctive or declarative relief. Under the separation of powers doctrine, the judiciary cannot order the governor to grant reprieves, commutations, or pardons. However, courts can determine whether the governor violated a plaintiff’s constitutional rights and order the governor to remedy a constitutional violation without violating the separation of powers doctrine so long as the governor retains the discretion to determine which particular remedy to implement. Here, plaintiffs alleged a violation of a fundamental constitutional right, and the governor’s inaction could be construed as “deliberate indifference” in violation of that right. Therefore, the trial court erred by prematurely dismissing plaintiffs’ request for declaratory or injunctive relief

Plaintiffs also contended that the district court erroneously concluded that they were not entitled to mandamus relief. The Court declined to address this argument because another form of relief may be available to plaintiffs.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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