Joseph de Raismes III, former longtime Boulder attorney instrumental to open space program, dies at age 76

Led transition of young program into municipal charter protection

BOULDER, CO – JULY 24, 2020: Nicole de Raismes is holding photograph of Joseph, her late brother,  who was Boulder’s city attorney for more than 20 years and  died earlier this month. Nicole and her sister, Michelle, are also in the photo.
  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, CO – JULY 24, 2020: Nicole de Raismes is holding photograph of Joseph, her late brother, who was Boulder’s city attorney for more than 20 years and died earlier this month. Nicole and her sister, Michelle, are also in the photo. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Former Boulder City Attorney Joseph de Raismes III, known for legally protecting the city’s internationally renowned open space system, died July 10. The 76-year-old served in that role from the late 1970s until 2003.

He also helped lead the city, along with other plaintiffs including Denver and Aspen, in a lawsuit that struck down a voter-approved state constitutional amendment that many residents opposed because they thought it unfairly targeted gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

De Raismes’ legal thinking was instrumental in further protecting Boulder open space lands. From the time Ruth Wright, a longtime local activist on open space and building height limit policies, helped pass an ordinance codifying how open space property would be used and governed in the mid-1970s, it was another 10-plus years until the land program was insulated with more safeguards.

With de Raismes’ help, open space policy in the mid-1980s was approved for encoding into the city’s charter, rather than an ordinance, so that it could only be changed with a vote of the people. Two majorly crucial provisions inserted into the charter amendment passed by the city that solidified the program’s endurance came from de Raismes, Wright said. One requires that any disposal of open space land for another purpose or to another owner gain the approval of at least three Open Space Board of Trustees members, and not just City Council; the other gives Boulder voters the option to have an election within 60 days of any open space land disposal that has been agreed upon by the board and Council to reverse the transaction.

Such a vote has never occurred, Wright said. Although the level of controversy surrounding the parcel owned by the University of Colorado system slated for development south of city limits — and where officials are attempting to locate flood mitigation infrastructure in a location that would require open space disposal under some project designs considered so far — might create a situation where the provision could come into play, depending on the final engineering plans.

“The most important thing Joe did was put the open space program into the city charter,” Wright said. “It was very informal at the beginning. We were afraid any City Council could make changes because it was just an ordinance. … He was a wonderful human being and he was witty and fun to be with. We had wonderful discussions.”

Before leading the city attorney’s office, de Raismes worked as a lawyer for the Rocky Mountain branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and for the state government.

“The framework for what Boulder is today was set during those years,” City Attorney Tom Carr said of de Raismes’ tenure. “Every person who enjoys a hike on open space, a walk on the mall — which was actually established by his predecessor, but flourished during Joe’s time — or even a drink of tasty water owes a little to Joe. City attorneys don’t make policy, they facilitate the policy goals of the community. Joe was a master, and the community has benefited from his years of service. For me, he was a mentor and a friend.”

De Raismes moved to Colorado from New Jersey, and family members eventually followed and settled in Boulder. Both of his sisters, Nicole de Raismes and Michelle de Raismes, still live in the city.

While leading the city attorney’s office in the 1990s, Joseph de Raismes helped a team litigate a case known as Evans v. Romer all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully arguing that a state constitutional amendment preventing the recognition of gay people as a protected class was unconstitutional.

The amendment was approved by a majority of electors across Colorado after petitioners were able to get the measure on the ballot by gaining enough voter signatures. But the law was never put into effect, in part because of the work of de Raismes and other lawyers and cities in the state, like Denver and Aspen, that had passed some local recognition of the LGBTQ community as a group that had been traditionally subjected to discrimination.

“This was a big civil rights victory for the city and the state,” Deputy City Attorney David Gehr said.

Mike Mills, a longtime Boulder resident and LGBTQ activist who remembers the casel, said de Raismes’ beliefs and participation on the suit was welcomed by the gay community.

“Often in gay rights, we’ve had steps forward and backward, but this lawsuit was a big part of keeping us moving forward, particularly given the psychological damage that the amendment caused,” Mills said. “It was very reassuring to know that we had the city at our backs. I would definitely say Joseph was an ally.”

As a brother, son and friend, de Raismes was fiercely loyal, his sisters said.

“I remember Joe’s smile, and I called him every Sunday. He always kept Sunday as a family day. He would go over to my mother’s house when she was still alive and see her,” Nicole de Raismes said.

Joseph de Raismes completed undergraduate studies at Yale in 1967 and attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1970. He is survived by his wife, Jaird, and son, Joseph, both of Boulder.

De Raismes was a member of the Yale Russian Chorus, and held a lifelong love of music, which he applied in a leadership role with the board of the Boulder Bach Festival.

“He would belt into song at every gathering he went to,” Michelle de Raismes said. “He was a real family person in terms of keeping the family together. He made relationships with his French cousins, kept in contact with everyone.”

A funeral Mass will be at 2 p.m. Aug. 21 at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, 1318 Mapleton Ave., with limited attendance due to the coronavirus.