Jerry Kopel

KOPEL: CHANGES AT CAPITOL HAVE LEFT US ESTRANGED

The good old days at the Legislature were marked with civility among members

My services at the Legislature began in 1957 while still a law student, before many of the present members were born.

I helped wife Dolores, who had been hired to proof bills that were scheduled for introduction in the House. The system required that bills to be certified by the proofreader be the same as the original. The original was returned to the sponsor, who then turned it over to the House chief clerk.

But in 1958, before the Legislature began the 1959 session, I was given the opportunity to be part of that session and view the legislators and how they treated each other. One word is sufficient: Civility.

Attorney General Duke Dunbar had appointed me and two other attorneys to legislative drafting, which was part of his office’s duties. There was no staff working directly for the Legislature (as now) assigned to draft bills.

We had a “secretary” — Clair Sipple — who knew more than the three of us about drafting bills. The Legislature had earlier wanted to give her a license to practice law, but the state Supreme Court said “no way.”

We also had 20 typists. Many of them went on to become regular legislative staff in future decades. Copies were made with carbon paper. No fax, no copy machines, no computers. Just scissors, writing pads, pens and typewriters. With the aid of lobbyists, we turned out 876 bills for the 1959 session.

What I noticed was the civility with which legislators interacted. Ever since the state Capitol building was open for business in January 1895 for the 10th General Assembly, the House and Senate members met in chambers where they have met ever since.

Back in 1895, there were 26 members in the Senate and 49 members in the House. That was workable because the lieutenant governor could break a tie in the Senate vote.

In 1959, the 65 House members and the 35 Senators had their desks in each chamber, a small file cabinet for bills, and (I recall) file cabinets along the walls, usually just one drawer for a member.

The legislators stayed together in session and out of session. Legislators stayed at their desks (if they were not going to a legislative committee) to work or to chat. Except for leadership, they had no offices, because there was no room.

In the “olden” days, the state capitol building was home to just about everything. Along with the governor, you would find the attorney general’s office, the state treasurer, the state auditor, and secretary of state on the first floor, or basement. Other executive branch departments were in buildings close by.

On the second floor, along with legislators, you would find the state Supreme Court, the justices’ offices, and the Supreme Court law library (open to everyone).

On the third floor, until the later 1950s, was the state library where anyone could pick up a book to sign out, read, and return. Somewhere in all of this (in the basement or the third floor) was the legislative council and drafting offices, the legislative library, legislative committee rooms, the joint budget committee offices, and various pressrooms.

House phones were in the cloakroom. Legislative staff would send in pink paper notes of who called and when.

Yes, Republicans and Democrats were assigned seats bunched with party members, just as is done today. But after floor work, or committee work, they gathered in the House and Senate. Democrats and Republicans talked to each other. You couldn’t stay mad at someone when you are in such close proximity day after day, and when he or she argued in debate on the House or Senate floor, courtesy was there in full bloom.

The smoke in the chambers from cigars, cigarettes and pipes was awful, unless of course it was your cigar. The banter was often disturbing, but legislators could always cross over to the Supreme Court library to sit and work on their bills. Democrats and Republicans often lunched together.

Has the change from camaraderie been worth it? Today, everyone has office space, Republicans with Republicans and Democrats with Democrats. Today there is a lack of communication not only about bills, but also about human events, good or bad, in their lives.

Legislators and their employees today have all the modern equipment, reasonably pleasant office space, and a takeover of the state Capitol space except for the governor, treasurer, lieutenant governor and pressroom.

All of that, and estrangement.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House. And in 1958-60 drafted bills for the Legislature.