As the state’s top lawyer, Attorney General Phil Weiser, 51, runs the state’s largest law firm, with more than 270 attorneys.
He is both Colorado’s chief legal adviser and top law enforcement official. His office prosecutes violations of state law, represents Colorado in legal disputes and issues advice to agencies and the General Assembly.
His first priority is protecting the residents of Colorado.
“That’s my main responsibility,” he says. “Whenever I file a suit or take on a case or help craft a bill, it’s always with the citizens of the state in mind first and foremost.”
Weiser is the first Democratic attorney general in decades, following Republicans Cynthia Coffman and Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers. He acknowledges that he’s more proactive — particularly at the federal level — than his predecessors. He’s joined or filed briefs in favor of 17 suits against the federal government, ranging from abortion rights to defending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program set up by the Obama administration.
Some claim he’s too much of an activist attorney general.
“How do I answer claims that I’m too much of an activist?” he asks. “I just keep in mind what’s best for the state, for the people — what harms them, what affects them, and then I act. So, no, I don’t think I’m being too much of an activist.”
After graduating from New York University School of Law, Weiser clerked for two U.S. Supreme Court justices, first Byron White and then Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He served in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice during the Clinton administration and was appointed the deputy assistant attorney general during the Obama administration.
He also has experience in academia, both as a law professor and as dean of the University of Colorado Law School. Running for office, he says, is a natural outgrowth of public service.
Weiser is awed by the single generation’s difference between his mother’s birth — in Germany’s Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 — and his becoming Colorado’s top attorney.
He took office in January, after winning by a 6 percent margin. He acknowledges that his first eight months have been a whirlwind.
In addition to the suits and briefs related to the Trump administration’s executive orders, he’s also involved in a potentially huge opioid settlement, and a defense of the state’s controversial “red flag” bill that would allow a court to temporarily remove firearms from someone who is deemed a credible threat to themselves or others.
He doesn’t plan to stop there: He’s also busy creating partnerships with businesses, improving the state’s regulatory environment and working to protect innovation and entrepreneurism in Colorado.
The Colorado Springs Business Journal and its sister paper, the Colorado Springs Independent, are hosting a community conversation with Weiser on Tuesday, Sept. 10.
Before that gathering, Weiser took time to answer questions about business, the law, his role in suing the Trump administration and how he sees the future of the attorney general’s office.
What role will you take in enforcing the state’s new ‘red flag’ law — one that allows judges to temporarily remove firearms from people who are deemed a danger to themselves and others?
I played a big role in developing this legislation, and I believe it will protect Colorado residents from gun violence and also protect our citizens’ Second Amendment rights. The law allows for judicial review; it allows for appeals. I believe it will curtail violence in Colorado and I plan to defend any legal challenges to the law for those reasons.
Have there been any legal challenges?
There’s been one suit filed so far, and we’re preparing the case. I believe in this law, and in keeping the citizens of Colorado safe. The red flag bill does that by preventing gun violence before it happens.
In the past, you’ve worked on Gov. Bill Ritter’s Innovation Council and you founded the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship. For you, what’s the connection between business and the regulatory environment?
On the one hand, businesses need freedom to be innovative; they need the right atmosphere to grow and to try new ideas. That’s what’s so impressive about Colorado businesses: They innovate; we’re a state of entrepreneurs. But we also need regulations to protect the consumer, to protect the environment. It’s a balancing act that the attorney general’s office oversees. But I believe that the intersection of the law and business growth is vital to a robust state. I’m so proud of the work Colorado’s entrepreneurs are doing, and I believe in innovation in business.
You’ve joined more than 10 lawsuits and filed briefs in favor of seven more cases against the Trump administration. Why? Is that really the role of the attorney general?
It absolutely is my role. I serve to protect the residents of Colorado. The litmus test I use is: Does this affect people here? Is it a direct impact or an indirect impact? Either way, I believe it’s my role to make sure federal rules and regulations don’t adversely affect the people of Colorado.
For instance, in Colorado more than 400,000 people now have Medicaid insurance for health care, thanks to the expansion in the Affordable Care Act. It gives people here critical protection for their health. We’ve joined the challenge to a lawsuit by Republican attorneys general to change the Affordable Care Act. That affects Colorado residents because it affects their health care.
How do you respond to critics who say that attorney generals have become the fourth branch of the federal government, thanks to suits like the one you just talked about?
It’s our job. As the attorney general, I’m the chief law enforcement officer and the state’s legal counsel. It makes sense to get involved at the federal level if it harms the people of Colorado.
In Colorado Springs, local police shot a young man named De’Von Bailey. His family is calling for an independent investigation into his death. What would it take for your office to get involved?
I oversee the Peace Officer Standards and Training; we call it POST. I’m responsible for the training and in cases like this, I will definitely take a look at the training we provide and make sure it covers all the ambiguities law enforcement faces on the job.
It’s our job to make sure that everyone is trained appropriately and vigorously. So I’m already involved from that aspect. I’m aware of the incident, and am following it closely.
As attorney general, you are overseeing the opioid lawsuit that Colorado joined last year. How will the money be spent?
As you know, opioids have devastated communities in Colorado and throughout the nation. More than 4,500 people have died in the state, more than 500 people died in 2017 alone. Thousands more are addicted. It’s a crisis. We’ll use the money not just at the state level, but we’ll use it to help individuals. We’ll use it for preventive public service announcements, for treatment, for a whole gamut of options. It’s going to go to help people in Colorado.
How do you plan to reform our criminal justice system?
Bond reform is going to be a big push for me. If you look at our criminal justice system, poor people are being treated unfairly. They have to pay to get out of jail while they await trail. If they can’t afford to pay anything, they wait in jail. It’s unfair because they haven’t been convicted of anything yet. I want to reform the structure so it doesn’t adversely affect low-income citizens, especially for people charged with petty crimes, nonviolent crimes. We don’t want to criminalize poverty; we don’t want to keep people in jail before they’ve been convicted of a crime. We don’t want to penalize people for being poor.
Sen. Pete Lee is a champion of restorative justice. What do you think of his concept of having offenders and victims working together to repair the damage done by crime?
I’ve heard Sen. Lee talk about this idea, and I think it could be a valuable part of our system. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the bond reform. Maybe it can be a part of the conversation moving forward — how we can address low-level crimes in a way that keeps people talking and possibly keeps people from longer jail sentences.