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Paul P. Prosser

Paul P. Prosser

Paul P. Prosser

26th Colorado Attorney General
Term: 1933-1936

               In the general election of 1932, Democrat Paul P. Prosser defeated Republican George Crowder by 30,000 votes to capture the Attorney General’s Office. When Prosser took office in January of 1933 the office was in transformation. Effective in 1933, the Colorado General Assembly formally created a Department of Law under the Attorney General. The Department would consist of the Division of Legal Affairs, Division of Securities, Public Utilities Commission, Legislative Reference Office, State Bank Commissioner, Insurance Department, Building and Loan Department, and Inheritance Tax Commissioner. The staff had grown to around 40, including approximately a dozen Assistant Attorneys General. Norris Bakke served as Deputy Attorney General and, after a brief respite in private practice, longtime former Deputy Attorney General Charles Roach returned to the office in 1933 and was the first lawyer to be given the title “First Assistant Attorney General.” Hazel Costello remained the only female assistant.

               Paul Pittsman Prosser, a descendent of Chief Justice John Marshall, was born November 7, 1880 in Fayette, Missouri. He graduated with a B. A. from Central College in 1900 and received a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1904. He practiced law for three years with a firm in St. Louis before opening his own practice in Fayette in 1907. From 1909 to 1912 and from 1916 to 1919, Prosser was the Prosecuting Attorney for Howard County, Missouri. His oratorical abilities won him recognition throughout the state and he was a close friend of influential politicians such as Champ Clark and his son Bennett Clark. Prosser’s second term as Prosecuting Attorney was interrupted by his entrance into the Army in 1919. He was commissioned a major and assigned to the judge advocates’ section in Washington, D. C.

               Prosser came to Denver in 1920 to join an uncle, Tyson Dines, a prominent Denver attorney, in the practice of law. He quickly made a mark in the legal, social and political community and in 1926 sought the Democratic nomination for U. S. Senate. He lost the primary to William Sweet.

               Prosser’s first two-year term as Attorney General was successful and he was easily reelected in 1934 over Malcolm Erickson by a 50,000 vote margin.[1] Prosser reported to Governor Edwin C. “Big Ed” Johnson that “never have the demands of this office been greater, never have its duties been more multitudinous, never has its responsibility been of such far reaching importance.” But he maintained that in handling the “infinitude of legal affairs” he had conducted the office as “a law office…We have not tried to play politics.”

Prosser and his office were heavily engaged in the ongoing water wars. He reported on the status of U.S. Supreme Court cases involving Wyoming and the Laramie River, Kansas and the Arkansas River, and Arizona and the Colorado River. He reported on negotiations to extend the Rio Grande River Compact and a proposed compact with Nebraska relating to the Republican and Arickoree Rivers. He also discussed the results of negotiations concerning interstate compacts to suppress crime, particularly that perpetrated by “modern gangsters.” Finally, Prosser discussed the adverse impacts of the Depression. “Unparalleled economic conditions have combined to produce an appalling emergency in Colorado,” he said. Prosser felt that the collection of $1.7 million in inheritance tax over a two year period was “creditable” considering the times.[2]

               Under Prosser’s direction the Attorney General’s Office opined on a variety of matters. It ruled that Lieutenant Governor Ray Talbot could simultaneously serve on the State Fair Board and be Commissioner of Parks, Highways and Lighting in Pueblo. It ruled delegates to the convention to ratify the 21st Amendment ending Prohibition must be elected by the people and not appointed by the legislature. (Prohibition officially ended December 5, 1933 when enough states ratified the Amendment.) It held a proposal to bar married women from state employment in order to free up more jobs for men during the Depression was unconstitutional. On the other hand, the Attorney General said a bill requiring that, during the Depression, “a maximum amount of human labor be used by the state in lieu of machinery” was constitutional. Of less import was the Attorney General’s opinion that certain legislation required three flavors of ice cream to only contain ten percent butterfat.

               Prosser also weighed in on an issue that would finally be resolved by the Colorado Supreme Court almost seventy years later. It was his opinion that the Colorado Constitution contemplated that reapportionment of legislative districts would take place only once every ten years, after a census. In Salazar v. Davidson, decided in 2004, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed.

               In June of 1936, Paul Prosser underwent an operation for an abdominal abscess. He was recovering when he developed an embolism and then pneumonia. He was physically exhausted when he entered the hospital from campaigning in his native state of Missouri for an old friend, Lloyd Stark, who was running for Governor. Prosser died on June 26, 1936, the fourth Attorney General of Colorado to die in office in 13 years. He was buried in Brunswick, Missouri. Denver lawyers who had been associated with Prosser served as pallbearers. He was eulogized as one who “took great personal pride in the conduct of the affairs of his office and his record is outstanding in the history of the office.”

               Less than six weeks later the Attorney General’s Office suffered another trauma with the untimely death of Charles Roach. A brilliant constitutional lawyer, Roach had been viewed as “the mainstay of the Attorney General’s Office” for almost 20 years since his initial appointment by Attorney General Leslie Hubbard. He had served as the Deputy Attorney General for seven Attorneys General.

               When Paul Prosser died in office, there was much speculation as to whom Governor Ed Johnson would appoint to replace him. On July 3, 1936 he chose 35-year-old Byron G. Rogers, an Assistant U. S. Attorney and former Colorado state legislator. In the ensuing decades Rogers would become a political institution in Colorado.


[1] Rocky Mountain News, June 27, 1936.

[2] Biennial Report of the Attorney General for 1933-1934, Colorado State Archives.