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In re Interest of J.R.M. - Right to a jury trial in dependency and neglect adjudicatory cases

Parents arguingThe law is comprised of both statute and caselaw. Statute sets forth the basic law as created by the legislature. However, statutes are general in nature and it is not always clear how they apply to a specific set of facts. Appellate courts interpret the statutes as they apply to a specific set of facts where a party does not agree with a trial court decision and alleges an error of fact or law We can learn a great deal about the law by studying appellate decisions.

In In Interest of J.R.M., 2023 COA 81, a court required in-person attendance at a pretrial conference to preserve a right to a jury trial. Mother did not attend the last pretrial conference in in person because she indicated that she had COVID. The Judge had been openly hostile to Mother. He also indicated that he was requiring in-person attendance because Mother had warrants that were required to be resolved and he questioned her credibility. Mother moved to recuse the Judge and was denied. The court held a bench trial and found the children to be neglected. Mother appealed on the grounds that the court had improperly denied her a jury trial due to her lack of physical appearance at the pretrial conference.

The Court of Appeals (COA) did not uphold the lower court decision and held that the statutory jury trial right cannot be denied in a dependency and neglect adjudicatory hearing due to a lack of in-person attendance at a pretrial conference. The language of C.R.C.P. 39(a). states that a trial will be converted to a bench trial if all parties did not appear at "trial". The statute did not identify a proceeding outside of trial, such as a pretrial conference. The COA considered that a denial of a jury trial could violate fundamental due process requirements as the requirement was not consistent with statutory protections for jury trials in adjudicatory hearings. The COA found no evidence in the record that Mother had waived her right to a jury trial. The Court did not address Mother's request for recusal as the Judge in question had retired.

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