7 Questions On Being a Public Official and the Challenges of Having a Private Life
by Matthew Crouch
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey is a busy guy. As the chief prosecutor overseeing the Denver District Attorney’s Office, he prosecuted more than 6,000 felony cases and 18,000 misdemeanor cases last year. Elected in 2004, he is known nationally as a champion for the use of DNA evidence, and also is known as a strong victim advocate. However, like many other Denver attorneys, there is a private, family side too.
Denver Docket: What’s it like being the public face of the Denver D.A.’s Office?
Mitch Morrissey: There are advantages and disadvantages of being a public official, depending on what level you’re at. There are some public officials who, wherever they go, people recognize them and people aren’t always happy with you. So, there can be some downsides to being a public official, just going out and doing the normal things that you do in life. For some reason, if there is someone in the community who is upset with you, it can be an interesting scenario. I don’t find that very often. My experience is that usually when I am out in public, people are patting me on the back for the good job the office is doing. Sometimes they are talking about me, but I understand what they are really saying is that the Denver D.A.’s Office is doing a great job. As far as that part of it goes, I am seen as the person who is Denver’s D.A. Office.
DD: As the "face" of the Denver D.A.’s Office, to what do you attribute your success and what do you see as your duties?
MM: I have an incredible staff. The people who work for me are the most dedicated public servants that I have ever met. When I get that pat on the back, it is something that I try to bring back to the D.A.’s Office. I want to make sure that everybody understands that this is what I am hearing, and what people are saying is that the staff is doing a great job. Part of my job as a leader of this office, and also as a public figure, is to "take the temperature" of what the community is saying about what we are doing. This yields both positive and negative feedback. People have stopped me on the street to complain about something. A lot of the time, it has nothing to do with what we do at the Denver D.A.’s Office. So, my role becomes trying to help them understand who they need to contact. I do what I can to explain our role in the system and what the limitations of our role are. For example, take immigration: I don’t have any authority over people who are here illegally. I have authority only over people who break state law. Some of that is frustrating. Also, a lot of what I do is deal with the media, which is something I didn’t really do as a deputy or chief deputy attorney.
DD: Did you discuss this public side of your career with your kids?
MM: Sure. I mean, my family is older when it comes to the kids. My kids are college-age kids. My responsibility in dealing with them is different than if they were little kids. My kids have always understood what I do, and the kinds of cases that we handle. As for the public side of things, I have talked to them about how something that an average kid might do would draw attention to them because they are my kids. If they were to get into trouble or do some of the things that you see teenagers get involved in, well, it would be that much more attention in the community if something happened. It is unfair to them, how something that would fly below the radar screen for any other kid in the city, with my kids, would end up in the newspaper or something along those lines. I also talked to them about what I must do to have this job. Running for election, campaigning, attending public forums, going to presentations or meetings for different groups, leaving home early and getting home late. My kids have had to get used to the fact that I don’t have a nine-to-five job, and that I’m not always available all weekend to go see sporting events that they are involved in. I’ve found it hard to get to some parent/teacher conferences. I’ve attended some, but I can’t always make it, based on the nature of the job.
DD: How does being a D.A. affect your private family life?
MM: It takes time away from my family. That’s something that you have to weigh when you take a job like this. My kids are used to the fact that I am on-call all the time. There was some degree of being on-call just as a normal chief deputy. So, they understand that something could happen in the middle of a hockey game — I’d get a call and have to leave. Or they understand I was up all night because there was a police shooting, so I’m not going to be available at 8:30 a.m. to drive them to hockey in Pueblo. Those kinds of things do happen, and the nice thing about it is that my wife helps me and my family understands that there are certain things that happen in the city that take precedence over a lot of the normal family things.
DD: Is it possible to balance being a public figure and having a private family life?
MM: You know that things are going to happen that will pull you away from your private life. You just hope they don’t happen back to back to back. Ideally, events are spaced out enough so they don’t have a devastating impact on your family and the plans that you have with them on any given evening. You have to maintain your own time and space to make sure that you stay healthy, and that you keep your family healthy. You can’t just work all the time. One thing that I tell my young deputies around here, especially the ones who are here after hours, is to go home and play with their kids, take their spouses out to dinner or go to a movie because there is no end to this work and you have to realize that. If you are not taking care of yourself, you are not doing anybody any good. This is a 24-hour-a-day job if you are doing it correctly, and you have to find the time to go away with your family. You have to remember what’s important to your kids, your spouse and your family. I am lucky that my parents still live in Denver. I know where to find my dad on Saturday to have lunch with him. I can drive 15 minutes and be sitting out on the porch with my dad or my mom. It is convenient that I am native here. My dad is an attorney too and I can go talk to him if I need some advice. Having a sounding board there, that is very important to me. I get good advice from my dad, my mom and my mother-in-law too. My father-in-law has passed on but it was the same with him.
DD: As the D.A., are you always a public figure? Is it always going to be that way in your private life?
MM: There always is that aspect to my life. Especially with the technology we have now (holds up his Blackberry.) I call this my leash. I can be reached on this 24-7, and I get the simulcast from the police department. I know, for instance, that the bomb squad has been called out to check on a cooler on Colfax. I hear about things almost as quickly as the police department. I also get the update when the problem has been resolved. It is good for me to know those things. This is something that is with me constantly, I carry this with me all the time. So, is there a private life? My wife will probably tell you that there is much less private time because of this thing.
DD: What is your favorite law and why?
MM: I like the law of gravity. It keeps you grounded. Certainly there are times you wish were a little bit different, but for the most part, it’s pretty straight forward. I like being grounded. The one thing about gravity is that it keeps us in touch with the basics. That’s really important for a public servant to remember, whether elected to an office or as an attorney. You can’t ever forget that you need to be well-grounded. You also can’t forget how you got where you are, and you cannot forget the people who put you in office to do the best job you can.
About the author: Matthew Crouch toils in a dark room armed only with a computer and a candle. On occasion, he escapes to practice law in taxation, bankruptcy and other areas of federal law. He enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of wine.