Is There a Lawyer in the House?
by Tambor Williams, Dan Grossman
Tambor Williams and Dan Grossman share their thoughts on lawyers creating laws.
By Rep. Tambor Williams (R)
In September, Representative Dan Grossman, the House Minority Leader, and I were asked to make a presentation at the Tuesdays at the Bar CLE program for the DBA on what it is like to be a lawyer in the State Legislature. The following report includes some of the observations we made at that meeting.
Of the 100 legislators in the General Assembly, seven Senators and seven Representatives are lawyers. Of those, only a handful maintain any kind of active practice. In the six years I have served, we have had as many as 18 lawyers serving at one time. Our participation in leadership has been disproportionate to our numbers: we have been Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, Majority and Minority Leaders and Committee Chairs.
Lawyers are treated differently by their peers than other legislators. We are subject to the malignment that all members of our profession receive, not the least of which is lawyer jokes. But we also receive a high degree of respect for our knowledge of the law and our ability to analyze proposed legislation objectively. We are known for doing our homework, which includes a lot of research and the reading of various bills. We often find ourselves in the position of helping other legislators even when we don’t agree with their particular agenda. Argument on the floor of the House or Senate is often proceeded by the words "I’m not a lawyer but . . . ," which I take to be a tacit admission that lawyers have an expertise that is emulated.
Lawyers, to their frustration, understand that legislation becomes law which they may have to deal with in their own practice some day. Legislation is more than promoting an agenda, making headlines, keeping constituents happy, choosing sides in a dispute or any of the many reasons legislators have for carrying legislation. For us, laws are the tools of our trade. We are mindful of legislative intent, common law, statutory inconsistencies and plain language. We do not see proposed legislation in a vacuum; we may support or oppose an idea for reasons other than merit. For example: I value judicial discretion, especially in the areas of criminal justice and family law, and will oppose legislation that on its own might be desirable if it inhibits a Court’s power to make decisions.
Lawyers who bring the expectations of orderly and relevant procedure to committee hearings have to make adjustments. Committee hearings are the opportunity for the public to express its opinions on proposed legislation without unreasonable restraints. Unlike a courtroom, which also has the goal of hearing all sides of a controversy, there are no procedural or evidentiary safeguards. Votes are lost and won on the basis of hearsay, anecdotes and slogans. Statements that are irrelevant or suspect can be just as influential as those that are well documented and on point. There is seldom opportunity for cross-examination or rebuttal.
While the skills and training of the legal profession are invaluable to the legislative process, I believe whatever success the General Assembly may have as a body is the result of the wide range of experiences, talents and vision of all its members. Currently the youngest member is 28 years old, the oldest, 78. Men make up 72 percent of the Senate and 63 percent of the House. The members are business people, law enforcement, miners, farmers, teachers, nurses, ranchers, engineers, brokers, retired military, secretaries, bankers, landlords, veterinarians, car salesmen, housewives, ministers, doctors and, once, we had a poet-warrior.
Obviously, what really counts is the desire to make a commitment of time, dedication and responsibility to others. If you have any interest in serving in an elected office, I would encourage you to pursue it. The honor of serving the citizens of Colorado is a rewarding experience you will always cherish.
By Rep. Dan Grossman (D), House Minority Leader
Every year, the University of Colorado at Denver Graduate School of Public Affairs releases a survey entitled, "The Mind of Colorado." Among other purposes, the survey measures public confidence in various institutions. Not surprisingly, in view of recent events, 73 percent of those surveyed in 2002 express strong confidence in the United States military.
Coming in 40 percentage points behind the military, the legal system registered an embarrassing 33 percent confidence rating. But even lawyers and judges enjoy more confidence among Coloradans than the Colorado legislature, which scored a horrible percent.
Lawyers, already defensive about their low confidence rating and always reticent to lend their time to less-than-lucrative endeavors, are not seeking to serve in the legislature in the numbers they once did. In the 2001-02 session of the General Assembly, only seven of the 65 members of the House of Representatives were attorneys. Neither the Speaker, nor the Majority Leader, nor the Assistant Majority Leader, nor the Chair of the Civil Justice and Judiciary Committee were lawyers. And while the Earth did not stop spinning on its axis, I believe the process suffered.
Lawyers bring a modicum of civility and deliberation to the legislative process. As a member of the minority party in the House, I have had to work with members of the opposite party as a matter of necessity. Some Republicans are reasonable and willing to compromise for the greater good. Some are not—just as there are some Democrats who can be uncompromising. But with a few exceptions, it is the lawyers in the General Assembly who constitute the force of moderation.
When Russell George, the Harvard-educated country lawyer from Rifle was sworn in as Speaker of the House, he was the voice of moderation when the Republicans controlled the Governor’s office and both chambers of the
legislature. He fought off constitutionally suspect efforts to undermine women’s freedom of reproductive choice.
And when Bill Kaufman, the Loveland Republican lawyer and successful solo practitioner, took over as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he became an instant voice of reason, forging a coalition of moderate lawmakers that staved off attacks on civil rights from the far right of his party.
It also helps to have legislators who have a basic understanding of simple constitutional principles and the imperative of the separation of powers. Most lawyers have acquired such an understanding, if only by osmosis while power-napping on their Bar-Bri Con Law outline. Many
non-lawyers have not. And while the legislative staff is charged with providing legal advice to members, such staff is no substitute for voting legislators who appreciate the risks involved in passing legislation that pushes the constitutional envelope.
It is interesting to note that notwithstanding the lack of public confidence in the legal system, two current legislators are also law students at DU, and another is considering enrolling next year. I guess they figure things can only get better.