A Conversation with Attorney (and Governor) Bill Ritter
by Becky Bye
Regardless of your political affiliation, if you are reading The Docket, you have at least one significant thing in common with Governor Bill Ritter: you likely share your identity as a lawyer and your passion for the rule of law with him, which may be more significant than political beliefs and ideology.
Just two days after the contentious November midterm elections, I had the chance to sit down with the governor to learn more about how being a lawyer has affected his life, his career, and most important, his governorship, which will end when John Hickenlooper is sworn in as the state’s 42nd governor in January.
When I asked Ritter whether he knew he wanted to be a district attorney and a politician when he started law school, he explained that he had put himself through college and law school as a pipe layer and member of a labor union. During his first two years of law school, he had set his focus on labor law. During his second law school summer, Ritter received an offer to intern at the Denver District Attorney’s office and at Climax Molybdenum to do labor law. Choosing where to intern would be a crucial turning point in his career.
Ultimately, Ritter chose the DA’s office.
"I opted for the DA’s office, never thinking that I would someday be the District Attorney of Denver," he said. "I had no political aspirations for elected office when I was in law school, and so my journey really has been one where things evolved over time, and certainly deciding to go to the District Attorney’s office as a legal intern was the first part."
Regarding his time as a DA, "I loved that job," Ritter recalls. "Being an elected district attorney in Denver is a challenge, is exciting work, is meaningful work; it feels like a very important public service, and I think in those respects, it is the one of the most satisfying things you can do as a lawyer."
He still might have been there, had term limits not forced him to start looking for other contexts that would allow him to serve the public. After thorough reflection and introspection, Ritter concluded that running for governor might be the next step.
He credits his legal background and schooling to helping with various aspects of his duties as governor. Specifically, Ritter believes it helped him in three fundamental ways. First, "learning how to practice law also teaches you how to assess situations and solve problems that you see for the first time," he said. "As a governor, you might be faced with topics that are new to you, but you can grasp it in time because the discipline of learning a new subject area is very much a part of being a good lawyer."
A second area where a legal background helped Ritter as governor is working with the law itself. "We make law. That’s a big part of the business in [a state’s Capitol]. I think that understanding the importance of those laws and how to be able to articulate the intent of the law helps the administration—my administration at least—form our thinking so that you can defend it."
Finally, Ritter believes that being a lawyer helped him think about the consequences of his actions and decisions as governor, intended or not. "Plenty of times, we pass laws, and they feel good—they sound good—when they’re in committee and when they get to the floor...even when they get to my desk; but I think it’s important to say, ‘What does this mean in the long term for the citizens of Colorado?’"
I also asked the governor whether his background as a lawyer affected his perspective on his judicial appointments.
"Absolutely," he responded. "I absolutely believe that being a lawyer has caused me to think differently about judicial appointments. I was in courtrooms, I was a trial lawyer, and I was the elected DA for 12 years; I had to deal with judges every day. I came to appreciate how important it was to select the best judge you can select."
Save for one occasion, when he was called to Boulder because of the Fourmile Canyon Fire, Ritter personally participated in all of the final interviews of judicial candidates. He has selected more than 100 judges in his four-year term. He took the judicial selection process seriously "because my experience led me to believe it may be the most lasting legacy you have as a governor."
Of course, nothing can prepare a person for every duty that comes with being a governor, such as dealing with the political consequences of one’s actions. Ritter notes, "The law didn’t instruct me on that, being a prosecutor didn’t instruct me on that, so, over time you have to get that or don’t. There are people that have done that a lot better than I as governor."
Besides the political duties tied to holding the state’s highest office, Ritter has faced other obstacles.
"There are many parts about being governor that have an emotional—and I would say even a spiritual—aspect to them," he said. "When you are governor and you are sitting at the funeral of a soldier killed in the line of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, you’re taking on the role of mourning on behalf of the five million people in Colorado. There’s a great deal of sadness inherent in doing that, and there’s nothing in the world that can prepare you for that, either."
When asked about his biggest challenges during his governorship, Ritter did not hesitate to say that it was balancing the budget through the worst recession since the Great Depression.
With that, he was "trying to protect the safety net," and minimize the impact of the recession. He also worked to keep a mentality that K-12 education is an investment.
"Doing all of that has really been difficult," he said. Ritter adds that another challenge he has faced is "navigating what have been these difficult political waters." He acknowledged that the political landscape has shifted after this past election in many places throughout the country. "For my four years as governor, it’s been very difficult to find ways to reach across the aisle and to find common ground. There’s a lot of political discourse that has increasingly become uncivil. ...I wasn’t comfortable in that roll, so I made a commitment to civility. So you could argue that my commitment to civility may have had its own consequences politically, but it was from my perspective still the right thing to do."
Regarding his relationship with Republican Attorney General John Suthers, Ritter notes, "There are places where John and I disagree." That included Ritter’s goal to freeze mill levies. In that instance, Suthers disagreed and Ritter had to seek outside counsel. He ultimately prevailed on the issue in the Colorado Supreme Court.
A higher profile disagreement pertains to Suthers’s opinions regarding federal health care reform: "I disagree with John and his joining the lawsuit of the other states to try and block federal health care reform. ...I’m going to encourage the governor-elect to at least file an amicus brief on behalf of several governors whose Republican attorneys general filed that lawsuit to say how they feel about it. John Suthers’s opinion isn’t the only opinion."
Ritter concludes that notwithstanding these two or three issues, "John and I have had a very good working relationship. And I think he’s done a very good job as attorney general of this state. In all those other arenas, it has been a privilege to serve with him."
Given my own legal background in energy and renewable energy law and the increased discourse regarding renewable energy, I asked him how his "new energy economy" platform managed to gather so much momentum in Colorado. He first notes that "it goes back to having a legal education and learning how to learn. As I began to campaign for governor, I was really looking at the issues, and I was trying to find a way to articulate the things that I thought were important to the future of our state. ...I think I had the ability to link the two and say we can produce energy differently, we can consume energy differently. It would be good for our energy portfolio, and it would be good for national security if we found a way to produce energy domestically more than we currently do."
This discussion is part of a larger dialogue. "We can’t talk about energy without talking about climate, and we can’t talk about climate without talking about energy, and to segregate these conversations is to court disaster for the whole conversation," Ritter said.
Given the state of the economy, I asked him for advice to young attorneys in Colorado looking for a job, or one that fulfills their passions, and to any other attorneys affected by the economy. Ritter reflected and responded with this sage advice: "I really believe it’s important to be passionate about your work and that be your primary purpose. This downturn has caused a lot of lawyers to have to be employed in some other sector. Hopefully, as things pick up, law work will pick back up and there will be greater employment opportunities for lawyers. I would just encourage them to persevere."
When asked about his career plans after leaving office and whether he plans to practice law again, Ritter responds, "Now that the election’s over, I have the opportunity to begin having more serious discussions about potential overtures. Some of them involve practicing law; others involve foundation work or work in higher education."
He adds, "I’m excited to have this conversation myself and to see what I do next. What I can say to the lawyers of Colorado is that it has certainly been a privilege to be governor, but it has also been a professional honor to me to have achieved this path to the governor’s office by being a lawyer."