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Colorado’s new attorney general plans legal action against Trump administration over health care, citizenship question

Phil Weiser says “there is going to be an ongoing opportunity for us to join a range of lawsuits that are protecting our Colorado way of life (and) our population and standing up for the rule of law.”

Chief Justice Nathan Coats, right, administers the oath of office for Attorney General Phil Weiser on the west steps of the Colorado Capitol on January 8, 2019 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s new attorney general on Wednesday outlined a list of legal challenges he plans to either join or explore joining against the Trump administration, starting with lawsuits aiming to protect the Affordable Care Act.

Phil Weiser said his priority is to sign Colorado onto a challenge with other Democratic state attorneys general appealing a federal judge’s ruling in December that President Barack Obama’s health care law — also known as Obamacare — is unconstitutional.

The Trump administration has declined to defend Obamacare in the legal challenge, so Democratic attorneys general have stepped in. The ruling by a federal judge in Texas found that the law’s pre-existing coverage mandate is unconstitutional because of Republicans’ changes to tax policy, therefore all of the Affordable Care Act is problematic.

Democrat Phil Weiser. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Weiser also said he plans to sue the Trump administration to stop it from broadening birth control exemptions in health insurance plans offered by employers on the basis of religion and morality.

“I believe those rules are not justified by the law,” he told reporters. “They are a threat to the rule of law and they hurt Coloradans who depend on this access to birth control.”

Weiser ran a campaign promising to be a check on the White House and is signaling that he will move quickly to fulfill that vow.

“There is going to be an ongoing opportunity for us to join a range of lawsuits that are protecting our Colorado way of life (and) our population and standing up for the rule of law,” Weiser said.

On top of health care, Weiser also said he plans to take action against the Trump administration over its plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and hinted that he might also sue to protect Obama-era vehicle emissions standards.

Specifically, Weiser said of those issues:

  • On the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question on next year’s census, which immigration advocacy groups and Democrats say would instill fear in immigrant communities and lead to a population undercount: “That action, I believe, is against the rule of law. It was blatantly motivated by (former White House adviser) Steve Bannon. We will join that case, and we will win.”
  • Of the Trump administration’s decision to roll back Obama-era rules for auto manufacturers to meet fleet fuel efficiency standards: “I believe that decision will be overturned and Colorado will be part of it.”

The timing of when Colorado might join all those legal actions remains up in the air. “The challenge is we have to work to get the right sort of position into place because depending on the procedural posture how and when we join is not just like snapping a finger,” Weiser said. “We have to find the right time and place.”

Weiser said he is also reviewing lawsuits former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, joined and considering whether the state should remove itself from them.

During his campaign, Weiser said he would withdraw Coffman’s appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court in the so-called Martinez case, which would require state oil and gas regulators to prioritize public health and the environment when deciding whether to issue new drilling permits.

The case has already been argued before the state’s Supreme Court, which Weiser said makes it more difficult for him to take action.

MORE: Colorado Supreme Court hears high-stakes “Martinez case” lawsuit around oil and gas

“We’re looking at that one,” he said. “That’s a particularly complicated one because it’s already been argued and submitted. It’s not like you can still do anything that would be moving the needle, so to speak. That’s waiting for decision.”

(The Colorado legislature this year is expected to debate whether it should change existing rules to to prioritize health and the environment in the consideration of drilling permits.)

One thing is certain: Weiser will continue the state’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma over the opioid crisis and could expand the legal action. “There may well be other defendants that we add to it,” he said. “The end game there has to be that we’re going to get an amount of money that we can use to address the effects of this epidemic which has been crippling across our state.”

Finally, Weiser said he also plans to work with state lawmakers in exploring how to expunge low-level marijuana convictions from people’s records. Prosecutors in Denver and Boulder are already in the midst of this process, but Weiser has expressed interest in something statewide. That would likely have to come in the form of legislation.

“It’s a high priority because right now there are people who have a criminal record that is impeding their economic opportunity and we can fix this,” he said. “New Jersey has made a decision — they’re not going to legalize marijuana until and unless they also fix this issue about past people who have convictions. We can do that at the state level. It’s going to take some real clever, hard work.”

Weiser laid out his plans on Wednesday shortly after a ceremonial investiture ceremony in the Colorado Supreme Court chambers that followed his official swearing in on Tuesday alongside Gov. Jared Polis.

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, left, poses with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in the Colorado Supreme Court chambers after an investiture ceremony for Weiser. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

As part of the ceremony, a recorded video message from U.S Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — for whom Weiser clerked in the 1990s — was played.

“Once convinced of the right goal to pursue, he goes for it fearlessly and relentless, but also with keen intelligence and diplomatic savvy,” she said in the recording, which was made before her recent surgery to remove tumors from her lung. “… Bravo, Phil, on what you have accomplished to date. I anticipate many encores of your successful performances as you meet the challenges ahead.”

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