AG, challenger square off in first debate

By Ernest Luning

The two lawyers who want to be Colorado’s next attorney general agreed about a lot at their first debate Wednesday night. But Republican incumbent John Suthers and his Democratic challenger, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, also spelled out sharp differences in their approach to the state’s top legal job.

Boulder DA Stan Garnett, left, debate moderator Aaron Harber, center, and Attorney General John Suthers, right, at their first forum together.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

While both agreed Arizona’s recently enacted immigration law doesn’t pass constitutional muster, they disagreed whether federal health care legislation does.

Months ago, Suthers joined a dozen other states in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the health care reform bill signed by President Barack Obama in March. He argued the law’s requirement that Americans buy health insurance is an unprecedented intrusion by the federal government.

“This is the first time in its history Congress is sanctioning you for not doing something,” Suthers said. If the law goes unchecked, he argued, “there is no limit to federal control over your individual economic decision making.”

Not so, Garnett said, labeling Suthers’ participation in the multi-state lawsuit as only the latest example of jumping on partisan bandwagons at the expense of Colorado’s interests.

Calling the action a “waste of the prestige of the office,” Garnett declared, “One of the first things I will do when I’m elected Colorado attorney general is dismiss Colorado from this case if it hasn’t already been thrown out of court.”

“This is a tax on your citizenship,” Suthers shot back, and then pointed at Garnett. “He’s saying there’s no problem with the federal government punishing you for not buying a good or service they want you to buy.” Left to stand, he said, it could open the door to the government fining citizens who don’t buy particular cars or join health clubs.

“I think that’s a scary proposition for our future.”

Garnett belittled the concerns raised by Suthers. “This is what I call angel on the head of a pin litigation,” he said, claiming the complaints about congressional powers have been settled.

“It’s a waste of time, it’s not what the courts are for, and it’s an improper use of the office of attorney general,” he said, branding Suthers’ legal arguments a cover for “clearly an effort to block health care reform.”

It was the most heated exchange of the roughly 90-minute debate. The candidates met at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law before an audience of about 100 law students, law professors and party regulars.

The debate was jointly sponsored by DU’s law school and the University of Colorado law school, where both obtained their law degrees. Public television host Aaron Harber moderated and recorded the event for later broadcast and streaming on the election Web site.

At times, the debate sounded more like a legal seminar as the candidates engaged in a convivial discussion about public perception of lawyers and how to improve the legal system in general. Both lauded moves to move disputes out of courtrooms and into less expensive arbitration venues, and both said Colorado was blessed with a merit-based judicial selection process that avoided pitfalls in states that elect judges.

Another point of agreement was the importance of defending Colorado’s water rights.

“You’re going to hear a lot in this campaign about consumer protection, white collar crime,” Suthers said, “but the most serious thing an attorney general does is protect your water interests, day in and day out.”

“Colorado’s attorney general is one of the most important elected officials in the entire Western United States,” Garnett said, and that’s because of water. “We’re pretty much upstream of everybody.”

The two candidates clashed over whether Suthers’ years of experience in elected and appointed positions were an asset or, as Garnett claimed, the office needs new blood.

“John is a career politician — he’s been in public office for virtually all his career,” Garnett said, adding that his own years in private practice gave him the skills to energize civil service lawyers, like those employed by the Department of Law. “When I took over the district attorney’s office in Boulder, I was astonished at the inefficiencies I saw.”

Suthers was having none of it.

“Stan’s been managing a public law office for 18 months. I’ve been managing public law offices for 18 years,” he said.

Suthers’ experience includes stints as a district attorney representing El Paso and neighboring counties and as U.S. attorney for Colorado during the last decade. Gov. Bill Owens appointed Suthers to the attorney general seat after Democrat Ken Salazar was elected to the Senate in 2004 and he won reelection two years later.

That’s the problem, said Garnett, who spent more than two decades working as a litigator at the powerful Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He was elected president of the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education before winning the district attorney seat two years ago.

“You’re not going to see somebody who’s more inept a career politician than me,” Suthers said. “It would never have occurred to me after 18 months to tell the people of Colorado Springs I was going to run for something else.”

Garnett promised to “energize the office and be proactive” protecting consumers. “In a state like Colorado where you’ve got 240 lawyers in the attorney general’s office, six lawyers in the consumer protection office isn’t going to get the job done.”

Suthers retorted that Garnett’s assessment of the situation displayed “naivete,” a word he used more than once to criticize his opponent. The attorney general’s funding is limited — more so this year when he’s had to institute a double-digit budget cut — and most of it goes to representing various state agencies, so there’s little flexibility on staffing, Suthers said.

He went on to defend the career consumer protection lawyers and said he gets topnotch work out of his dedicated staff.

“I’ve never not accepted their recommendations,” he said. “They know what they’re doing, and we’re doing an outstanding job in consumer protection.”

Nonetheless, Garnett said, the office isn’t doing enough to educate and protect consumers and other groups from abuse. He promised to “reallocate resources if we need to.”

“Folks,” Suthers replied, “in the last five and a half years, the Colorado attorney general’s office has been more active than at any time in its history in consumer protection.” He listed initiatives to warn elderly residents about fraudulent and abusive practices, as well as stepped-up prosecution of securities fraud cases.

Asked by Harber to admit to a mistake — “to open the kimono” — Suthers said he was imprecise responding to a question from the Clear the Bench campaign, a conservative group seeking to oust four justices on the Colorado Supreme Court in a retention vote this fall.

“I should have declined to answer the question,” Suthers said. Instead, he said, he tried to explain he supported one of the judges, but some took that to mean he opposed the other three up for retention.

Bloggers jumped on the comments, he said, and that “resulted in a headline about my criticism of the court that went too far, which said I was in favor of non-retention. That sent the wrong message to people in my office.”

Suthers underlined his position: “I have never been a part of Clear the Bench. I have no connection whatsoever.”

Garnett’s kimono gap was less revealing.

Citing a favorite adage, he allowed that, “Good judgment is what you get from bad judgment. Certainly I’ve made mistakes in terms of a judgment call or strategy in a case.” More specifically, he said, when he took over the Boulder district attorney’s office last year, some of the changes he instituted weren’t handled “quick enough and effective enough.”

Garnett, who entered the race in April shortly after Suthers announced he’d joined the lawsuit against the health care bill, reported a strong start to his fundraising but still trails the incumbent when it comes to campaign cash.

The Democrat has raised just over $100,000 in two months and reported $85,571 cash on hand at the end of May. Suthers, on the other hand, only raised $21,000 last month but has been at it a lot longer. His total reported contributions through May add up to more than $300,000 and his campaign said he had $209,558 on hand at the end of the month.