By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The two candidates vying for the attorney general post on the November ballot squared off again this week, this time on a debate that was televised Friday evening.
Democrat Stan Garnett and incumbent Republican John Suthers continue to spar over Suthers’ participation in a lawsuit against the federal government over health care reform. Tuesday’s debate also covered medical marijuana, ballot initiatives, and how to cut the budget of the AG’s office next year.
The debate was taped Tuesday afternoon at the studios of CPT-12 (formerly KBDI), in conjunction with KCNC-TV4. It aired on CPT-12 on Friday at 9:30 p.m. as part of the “Colorado Decides” series, leading up to the November election.
Suthers defended his decision to join in a lawsuit filed last March against the federal government by a dozen other attorneys general. The lawsuit seeks to block implementation of health care reform; specifically, portions of the law that require individuals to purchase health insurance. The lawsuit also challenges the constitutionality of the penalties that would be assessed to those who disregard the law but do not qualify for exemptions because of income or other allowable reasons.
Suthers said the federal government has no power granted to it in the constitution that requires people to purchase health insurance. The federal law passed earlier this year is the first time a law was designed to regulate “inactivity” rather than regulating activity, as is common with the laws on commerce, he said. “This goes way beyond health care and health insurance,” Suthers explained. “Instead of them giving us tax credits for buying what they want us to buy, they will punish us” for not buying health insurance.
Garnett said Suthers’ decision to enter into the lawsuit was a big mistake and one based on dubious legal theory. He also charged that Suthers’ decision was part of a continuing pattern of entering into partisan litigation around the country, and his time would be better spent going after consumer fraud. Garnett said the other partisan litigation included Suthers’ decision to participate in a Virginia lawsuit regarding the Pledge of Allegiance, an anti-gay rights case in Nebraska; and a lawsuit involving Duke Energy and environmental groups, where the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against the energy company.
Suthers went on the defensive over those cases, pointing out that in the Virginia case the trial court denied the federal government’s motion to dismiss the case.
“Our number one criteria in getting involved in a case is what is the impact on Colorado and Colorado law,” he said, as was the situation with the Virginia case. He also noted that every state attorney general had sided with the state of Virginia in the case, and that Garnett did not support it “says a lot about where he’s coming from.” With regard to the Nebraska case, the law in that state which said that marriage was between a man and a woman is the same as Colorado law, Suthers said, and that he was protecting Colorado law. And on Duke Energy, Suthers explained that western states were concerned about inconsistence and contradictory application of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and that part of the lawsuit was sent back to the trial court and “we prevailed” in that part of the case.
Garnett then responded to questions from co-moderator Eric Sondermann of SE2 on the role of the attorney general and on which cases to take and when to bow out. Garnett said the Attorney General has discretion on how to approach the job, which he said is why it’s so important to have the right person in that position. It’s also why it was wrong, he said, for Suthers to accept campaign contributions from payday lenders while his department was working on regulations governing those lenders. “The Attorney General has an obligation to the public, to maintain independence and the appearance of independence,” Garnett charged.
Suthers did not respond to Garnett’s claims regarding his contributions from the payday lenders. The obligation of the AG, he said, is to take on cases that he is required to take, such as challenges to Colorado law, or challenges to initiatives passed by the voters. The AG also is responsible for defending the General Assembly, except “in that rare instance where you have a serious belief that it’s unconstitutional and indefensible.” The governor can then appoint someone else to take the case, he said.
On day-to-day work, Suthers said he relies on his staff to make recommendations and set priorities on the consumer protection or criminal cases the office will pursue. “Certain cases you have to get in, others you allocate priorities.”
Co-moderator Terry Jessup of KCNC-TV4 asked how the candidates would deal with the state’s budget crisis, at least as it pertains to the budget of the Attorney General’s office. Garnett explained that he saved $200,000 on a $5 million budget after he restructured the District Attorney’s office in Boulder. And in private practice, he said, he constantly worked on how to be efficient and accountable. As Attorney General, he would also restructure that office, to make it more efficient and have clear priorities.
Suthers said that the funding of a DA’s office and the AG’s office is “drastically different.” He broke down how the office is funded, with a combination of general fund and cash funds, and that he dealt with a 12.5 percent cut in general funds last year. He found other ways to cover those cuts, he explained. “I will sit down with the next governor…I think the best thing [the governor] can do in the next four years is to make steps to untangle the constitutional mess” the state’s budget is in, “and I will stand with you,” Suthers said.
Both Suthers and Garnett oppose amendments 62 and 63. On Amendment 62, the “personhood” amendment, both said they are pro-life. Suthers said the problem with 62 is that it goes too far by giving contractual rights to a fetus. On Amendment 63, Suthers said that if the attorneys general lose their lawsuit, the federal government will order people to buy health insurance and the amendment would mean nothing. On the other hand, if the attorneys general win the case, the government should incentivize states to buy health insurance, and the amendment would prevent Colorado from doing that.
Garnett said he agreed with Suthers on Amendment 62. On Amendment 63, Garnett said the issue is the role of the federal government, and it has to be able to make decisions to the benefit of the entire country. Amendment 63 is “illegal and bad policy,” he said. However, if voters pass Amendment 63, Garnett said he would defend it against challenges.
Medical marijuana part of discussion
Medical marijuana also was part of Tuesday’s debate. Suthers said that Amendment 20, passed by voters in 2000, did not sanction dispensaries — that was done by the General Assembly. But the Legislature also granted counties and municipalities the right to opt out, and Suthers said he believed 80 percent of them would do that.
Garnett said he believed the issue is now a land use issue, not a law enforcement issue, and that law enforcement now realizes that. He disagreed with Suthers on his claim that 80 percent would opt out, as is allowed under HB 10-1284; “I believe most will permit it for the tax revenue.”
During his remarks on medical marijuana, Garnett pointed out that he had been endorsed by the statewide Fraternal Order of Police, and that drew a sharp response from Suthers that the FOP had not even interviewed him because of his opposition to collective bargaining and a “peace officer’s bill of rights.”
In his closing remarks, Garnett said Colorado is at a point where it needs an attorney general’s office that is accountable, transparent, efficient and modern. Garnett cited his 22 years of private practice in managing complicated cases and his experience as Boulder County DA, saying it will help him make the AG’s office efficient, save taxpayer money and focus on the issues that matter, especially consumer protection.
Suthers said it has been a privilege to serve as Attorney General, district attorney in Colorado Springs and U.S. Attorney, and that “no one is better qualified to lead the AG’s office in meeting the many legal challenges that Colorado will face in the years ahead.” Suthers said in the last five years the office has done a great job, by creating an Internet crimes unit that resulted in the conviction of 400 predators, aggressively dealing with mortgage and securities fraud, and resolving three of the largest environmental cases in state history.