Every once in a while, even in this cynical age, a piece of legislation comes along that’s so gobsmackingly out of touch, so inventive in its efforts not merely to ignore the spirit of the times, so nakedly clothed in legislative self-interest, that it makes you question the process that led someone to think, “Yes, this is an excellent idea for a state law in Colorado.”
Such a bill is HB20-1121, “Retaliation Against An Elected Official.” The bill summary reads:
“Under current law, there is a crime of retaliation against a judge if an individual makes a credible threat or commits an act of harassment or an act of harm or injury upon a person or property as retaliation or retribution against a judge. The crime is a class 4 felony. The bill adds elected officials and their families to the crime.”
Here’s the thing – harassment is already a misdemeanor, as referenced in the bill text. It’s a Class 3 if it’s routine, and Class 1 if it’s against a protected class. For reference, we’ve got the definition from the Colorado Code as an appendix at the bottom. Some of that behavior is truly reprehensible, and people who engage in it deserve to be punished.
Likewise, we’ve all seen the videos of Trump administration officials being hounded out of restaurants or book stores. Senator Ted Cruz was forced to abandon his dinner at the height of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, much to the amusement of Trevor Noah. None of this is healthy, none of us should want to see it normalized.
But this bill would make all Colorado elected officials a super-protected class by turning the act into a felony. The sentencing guidelines for a class 4 felony in Colorado call for 2-6 years in prison and between $2,000 and $500,000 in fines. Our system already recognizes that judges and the courts are different from lawmakers and legislatures, and that the former need some insulation in order to operate effectively.
Similarly, not all of the behavior listed should rise to the level of a felony. Sections of this law could reasonably be construed to mean vulgar but relatively commonplace behavior. Consider sections 1(b) or 1(h). While some of the other sections describe behavior that could seriously disrupt someone’s life, section (b) refers merely to “obscene language” or an obscene gesture. Section (h) reads: “Repeatedly insults, taunts, challenges, or makes communications in offensively coarse language to, another in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response,” so you’re out of luck if the senator’s mother was a hamster, or father smells of elderberries.
Again, none of what I (and you, dear reader) have in mind is likely the sort of thing we’d want to model for our kids. But if someone flips off their state senator and calls him an SOB to his face, truth should be a complete defense.
The fact is, Trump largely got elected because senators and congressmen and government administrators – and now, even state legislators – think they’re entitled to special protections and special treatment not accorded to the rest of us. More than that, there is a perception that lawmakers and bureaucrats never really have to bear the consequences of their decisions. I can hardly imagine a piece of legislation that more perfectly embodies that attitude.
The legislation also specific that the offense must be committed upon “An elected official related to the elected official’s duties.” In other words, the intent of the harasser matters in establishing that the harassment was retribution, and not merely pique at Sen. Smith’s erratic driving. You can bet that political activists will be picking over social media posts like baboons delousing each other in order to establish a political motive for bad behavior.
And don’t think some politicians won’t let us know it, for the thinly-veiled purpose of getting us to censor ourselves and our criticisms, lest it be used against us in a court of law.
As it stands now, the bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on January 30 at 1:30 PM. It seems a good opportunity to politely but firmly remind these people that they serve at our pleasure, and that they’re not as special as they seem to think they are.
Joshua Sharf, a Denver resident, writes regularly for Complete Colorado.