Colorado’s new Attorney General, Phil Weiser ’94, seeks to innovate

As a politically active college student at Swarthmore in the early 1990s, Phil Weiser ’94 decided to go to law school after a mentor told him a legal education would help him work in public service. He chose NYU Law based on a meeting with the then-executive director of the Public Interest Law Center, Steven Kelban, who sketched out NYU Law’s public service offerings for him. “I was totally riveted by that picture,” Weiser says.

Phil Weiser ’94
Phil Weiser ’94

Weiser is still pursuing his passion for service today. In January, he was sworn in as the 39th attorney general of Colorado.

As a student at the Law School, Weiser studied with professors including Boxer Family Professor of Law Vicki Been ’83; Christopher Eisgruber (who is now president of Princeton University); and Lawrence King Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus Richard Revesz, who served as his formal adviser. Been recalls Weiser as a student who was “smart, intellectually curious, and very open to new ideas.… His enthusiasm transformed the whole classroom.”

After law school, Weiser moved to Colorado to clerk at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. From day one, he says, he never wanted to leave the state. “In Colorado, the ethos is that we’re all in this together, pulling [for] each other to succeed, and that really spoke to me in a deep way,” he says. Despite stints in Washington, DC, he has always returned to Colorado.

What first took him to DC was a Supreme Court clerkship—for the then-retired Justice Byron White, who took one clerk per year, and for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “It was an extraordinary experience, getting to know two unbelievable role models,” Weiser says.

He then worked for several years in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ)—where he found himself negotiating with Randal Milch ’85, then a senior lawyer at Bell Atlantic, over the company’s entrance into the long-distance market. As a negotiator, Weiser was “dogged and smart and irritating to no end, but eventually he pushed us to the right place,” says Milch, who is now a co-chair of the NYU Center for Cybersecurity and distinguished fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security. “He’s got a good mixture of forceful advocacy, a willingness to listen, all undergirded by a very, very formidable intelligence.”

Weiser also served as deputy assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, then as senior advisor for technology and innovation to the director of the National Economic Council during the administration of President Barack Obama.

Between his terms at the DOJ, Weiser returned to Colorado as a professor of law and telecommunications at the University of Colorado Boulder Law School, where he founded the school’s Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. He became dean of the law school in 2011, and served in that capacity for five years.

Taking on the role of dean at a law school was crucial, he says, in preparing him for his current position. “It’s all about honoring the obligation to engage people, to listen, and to build relationships,” Weiser says, explaining that he sees the role of attorney general as a kind of “mentor- or teacher-in-chief” to the 500 people in the office. “I will be effective only by helping others be effective,” he says.

His goals for the office are ambitious. Weiser plans to take an active approach to consumer protection and he has appointed a chief innovation officer tasked with developing technology solutions to create greater efficiency and effectiveness in Colorado’s justice system.

“No other attorney general’s office in the country has a chief innovation officer, but I will venture that 20 years from now they all will,” Weiser predicts.

Moreover, Weiser says, the voters of Colorado who elected him as part of 2018’s “blue wave” of Democratic victories are looking for him to “protect Colorado values, including when the federal government acts illegally in ways that hurts Colorado.” In February, Colorado joined a lawsuit brought by a coalition of 16 states to challenge the legality of President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Weiser also has ended his predecessor’s challenge to the Clean Power Plan, a policy that is aimed at reducing carbon emissions and which the Trump Administration is seeking to end.

Weiser says that improving the criminal justice system is a top priority.  “Right now,” he says, “we are putting people in jail or prison because they are addicted to opioids; we need to develop drug treatment alternatives to incarceration.”  Moreover, Weiser emphasizes that reforming cash bail is a moral imperative. “It is unjust,” he says, “for people to sit in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay cash bail when they pose no flight risk or danger to society.”

Weiser says that he looks forward to the challenges ahead. “I have this wonderful opportunity to serve the people of Colorado, representing them in issues that our state faces and then protecting people whether as consumers, as citizens, or protecting our land, air, and water,” he says. “It is likely going to be the best job I’ve ever had.”

Posted March 19, 2019