Colorado Attorney General talks upholding democracy

Samantha Ye

In honor of Election Day, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser spoke in the University Center for the Arts at Colorado State University Tuesday, where he talked about public officials’ duty to uphold the rule of law and the critical role of the public in upholding democracy.

“It’s on every generation to keep our republic,” Weiser said. “Today’s challenge around civic engagement may be more fundamental, more difficult than ones we’ve had before, but I remain optimistic.”

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The United States is a project toward “a more perfect union,” which “all of us have to be a part of,” Weiser said. He cited former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart on the four elements of the republic: popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, civic virtue and a focus on the commonwealth.

As Weiser answered audience questions, anti-corruption and public engagement became recurring themes.

If people lose faith in that there’s such thing as rule of law and everything’s politicized, then our nation has lost a foundation of what has made us a thriving economy and democracy.” -Phil Weiser, Colorado attorney general

One concern brought up by an attendee from the United Kingdom was how U.S. institutions could keep their legal systems insulated from political bias. 

Weiser said one way is to ensure the U.S. Supreme Court remains a legal, non-politicized institution. 

A nonpolitical and principled “rule of law” is what Weiser’s office is tasked to defend, he said. For example, even though he isn’t a fan of the death penalty, he enforces it as part of his job.

“If people lose faith in that there’s such thing as rule of law and everything’s politicized, then our nation has lost a foundation of what has made us a thriving economy and democracy,” Weiser said. “I will do my part to preserve it, and I believe we will.”

One attendee said they were surprised by Weiser’s optimism given how President Donald Trump’s administration has revealed how so much of government is based on unenforceable traditions. They asked if there would be a need to institutionalize those norms through law. 

Weiser said the current administration has violated many governmental norms — such as telling the truth — which he believes need to be sustained for a healthy constitutional democracy.

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Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks to students and community members at the University Center for the Arts Nov 5. Weiser addressed questions about a republican system of government, politics in the legal field, gun control, water rights and other issues. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

And while some of those norms could be written into law, Weiser said he isn’t sure others can be. 

“How do you create a law requiring politicians tell the truth?” Weiser asked. 

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Rather, Weiser said, there needs to be a public that punishes people who violate those norms.

“The biggest remedy our democracy will get, I believe, in 2020, is validating decency: the core foundation of our constitutional democracy — that’s what’s going to be on the ballot,” Weiser said.

He said after the Trump administration, there is a huge opportunity for renewal to make the government more responsive to the people and to address issues such as climate change and infrastructure. While it may be hard to see what comes next in the “middle of a hurricane,” Weiser said it is important to stay optimistic. 

“If you give up all hope, if you choose to be cynical, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that you will keep bringing yourself down,” Weiser said. “If you believe things will get better, if you do your part, that’s how we change the world.”

And his well-articulated message resonated well with the students and audience, said attendee Paulina Villasenor, sophomore political science major at CSU.

“I thought it was really innovative,” Villasenor said. “I thought he did a really good job covering (how) we as citizens and as representative members of Colorado can help implement those ideas further.”

 At the end of the day, he serves the people and the political systems that we’ve built.” -Sam Houghteling, program director, Straayer Center

That result was exactly why Weiser was invited to speak by the sponsoring CSU groups, including the Straayer Center, CSU’s department of political science, the Pre-Law Club and the legal studies interdisciplinary minor, said Sam Houghteling, program director for the Straayer Center.

“We wanted to honor Election Day and the importance of civic engagement by bringing a speaker to campus who could talk about democracy and democratic systems and why all this really matters,” Houghteling said.

Weiser was able to talk both about the broad institutions of democracy and specific public challenges from his vantage point as attorney general, Houghteling said.

And Houghteling said it was important that Weiser explained how he defends laws even when he doesn’t fully believe them because “at the end of the day, he serves the people and the political systems that we’ve built.” 

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.