First attorney general debate reveals battling approaches to the office

In the first face-to-face showdown between Colorado Republican Attorney General John Suthers and Democratic challenger Stan Garnett last night, Suthers batted back charges that he used the office for partisan purposes and Garnett said he would be more proactive in educating Coloradans on how to fight criminality, including environmental criminal behavior.

Stan Garnett and John Suthers (Boven)

“The biggest difference between John Suthers and myself in terms of how we see the office,” Garnett said, “is I [believe] we need to be proactive, we need to be progressive, we need to be out in the community educating people making sure that they understand how they can be victimized civilly and criminally.”

Garnett told the Colorado Independent that he would expand consumer protections and protections for the elderly and for the environment by actively seeking out and prosecuting violations.

Suthers argued however that there was little room for the powers of the office to grow, that anything more would be pushing an agenda or overreaching.

“In terms of the law available to the Attorney General, if you stick to a philosophy of our job is to enforce the law and go after people who violated the law, there is not more to do,” Suthers said. “There are attorney generals out there who tend to be on [Garnett’s] side of the aisle who think they should use non-statutory remedies, like public nuisance and things like that, to accomplish some public policy changes. My view is that public policy is for the legislature my job is to enforce the law. I think that there isn’t a lot of expansion to be had in the law.”

Suthers explained during the debate that his office has been more active in prosecuting consumer protection cases during his tenure than any time in the office’s history.   

The candidates were speaking at a debate hosted by the Aaron Harbor Show and the University of Denver’s Law school at Sturm Hall. The debate will be televised in full over the course of three episodes on a number of affiliate channels across the state and online.

Suthers argued that he was beyond political agendas. Garnett, though, pointed to the suit filed by Republican attorneys general to combat federal health care legislation signed into law by the Obama administration weeks ago. Garnett said Suthers had used his power for purely partisan purposes.

“I thought [the lawsuit] was inappropriate and I thought it was a waste of the prestige and authority of the office of Colorado attorney general,” Garnet said.

Suthers said the suit was not partisan, that it was merely a matter of states’ rights. He said it was frightening that an individual who did not support states’ rights would run for attorney general, where so much of the litigation turned on allocation of powers. He said that the commerce clause, which was being used by the federal government to impose a direct tax on individuals who do not participate in purchasing health care, would expand the law so that “there is no limit on individual economic decision making.” Suthers said the new health care legislation could force people to purchase health-club memberships and fuel-efficient vehicles.

Garnett said that was nothing but “fear-mongering.”

In a discussion after the debate, University of Colorado and University of Denver law school deans told the crowd that, in joining the health care lawsuit spearheaded by unabashed partisan Florida AG Bill McCollum, it was clear Suthers was acting politically. They said the lawsuit had almost no chance of success, even before the nation’s current conservative Supreme Court.

Sturm Law School dean and constitutional lawyer Martin Katz said that although the Rehnquist Court had been restricting federalism and the commerce clause, “to the extent their are limits on Congress’s commerce power, there are not a lot… This lawsuit brought by the attorneys general, it has somewhat of an uphill battle.”

CU law school dean, David Getches agreed.

“I am fairly confident that, if it were pressed right now, [the lawsuit] would be dismissed as unripe because there is simply no enforcement of it.” It would be difficult to fairly separate the suit from the politics that surrounded the debate over the legislation, he said, offering Suthers a backhanded compliment. “As an observer of Suthers, I have never seen any other instance of this use of the office for political means.”

In fact, he said it’s likely Suthers wishes he didn’t join the lawsuit. “I don’t think Stan Garnett would have entered the race for attorney general had it not been for that lawsuit.”

On the hot button topic of immigration policy, both candidates said the federal government needed to enact comprehensive reform.

When asked by Harbor if Arizona could remove citizenship rights from children born in the United States to illegal aliens and if that was an appropriate response, both candidates rejected the idea as unconstitutional. Suthers hedged, though.

“Now this is a serious issue that I think the citizens of the United States might want to weigh in on and Congress may want to weigh in on because we have a lot of people coming into the country illegally for the sole purpose of having a child, having a United States citizen in the family that can then boot strap the family into the country.”

Except in rare incidents, children with U.S. citizenship born to illegal immigrant parents do not prevent deportation. Illegal immigrants who have had children in the U.S. are not exempt from deportation proceedings except in cases where extreme hardship is considered. Children born in the country must wait until their 21st birthday before having the option to petition to have their family given legal status.

Suthers also said he would need to be assured that so-called e-verify technology correctly identified those who were illegally in the country before supporting the program.

Garnett decried Arizona style laws as not only unconstitutional but also as bad policy because of the “impact they will likely have on communities and on law enforcement.”

While candidate remained cordial during the debate and said they planned to run a positive campaign, both did not hesitate to criticize one another during the debate.

“When I ran for district attorney, I wanted to be district attorney,” Suthers said. “When I ran for attorney general it was because I wanted to be attorney general. There are a lot of people in this country who do not want to be attorney general. They all want to be United States Senators. They all want to be Governor,” Suthers said seeming to allude to Garnett’s mere 18 months in office.

Garnett who spent a large portion of his career in a private practice working for the politically active law firm Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Scheck, expounded upon Suthers’ history in public service, calling him a “career politician” who had been appointed by Gov. Bill Owens as the head of the Department of Corrections and appointed soon after by President George Bush to become a U.S. Attorney. Suthers was then appointed attorney general by Owens. He was finally elected to that office in the last election. Suthers also worked in private practice.

Noting that he has a number of Democrats in positions of power, Suthers said both he and Garnett were professional in the way the viewed the office.

“I think we are pretty good lawyers. I think that we have a difference in philosophy he has a more expansive role of the AG to solve problems. I see myself the states chief enforcement officer in enforcing the states laws.”

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