Health care suit spurs spirited Colorado contest

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Colorado’s elections for state attorney general usually are ho-hum affairs of civil debates and yard signs.

Not this year.

Federal health care policy and a Colorado serial killer are top issues in the race between Republican incumbent John Suthers and Democrat Stan Garnett, the Boulder County district attorney. Garnett jumped into the race after Suthers joined other state attorneys general in a lawsuit challenging the health care overhaul.

Suthers said he believes the overhaul overreaches state rights. Unlike federal mandates for seat belts or Medicaid funding, where states enact laws or risk losing federal funds, the health care law calls for the federal government to fine citizens who don’t buy health insurance by 2014, Suthers said.

“I support everybody having health insurance,” Suthers said. “The only thing I don’t buy is violating the U.S. Constitution to get there.”

Garnett called Suthers’ move “an obstructionist lawsuit that goes to partisan sentiments.”

“If he really thought it was something worth doing, he should have filed it in Colorado,” Garnett said.

Gov. Bill Ritter has joined three other Democratic governors to fight the lawsuit. Ritter and the governors of Washington, Pennsylvania and Michigan are working with law firms handling the case for free.

Suthers said that when he joined the suit against the health care law in March, Ritter called him and read a news release criticizing the move.

“That’s how professional people who respect each other operate,” Suthers said.

Garnett pledges to pull Colorado from the lawsuit.

Garnett also calls Suthers a detached manager who isn’t on top of what goes on in his office. He cited the case of Scott Kimball, a Colorado resident who admitted killing four people while serving as an FBI informant.

Suthers was the U.S. attorney in Denver in 2002 when Kimball, then in custody for check fraud, was released from prison to act as an FBI drug informant. Ultimately, Garnett prosecuted Kimball for four slayings committed in Colorado while Kimball was free. Kimball pleaded guilty to second degree murder in the slayings and is serving a 70-year prison sentence.

Garnett contends Suthers should have known that he approved the transfer of a dangerous criminal to Colorado and that attorneys he supervised repeatedly argued for his release. He has used the case in campaign ads to argue that Suthers is a detached manager.

“It doesn’t matter how many people you are managing,” Garnett said. “You’re the top lawyer, and you’re responsible for everything that happens on the case.”

Suthers said there was nothing in Kimball’s previous criminal record to indicate he was capable of violence.

“Scott Kimball alone is responsible for the deaths of his victims,” Suthers said. “The judge is not, the defense attorney is not, the FBI is not, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is not.”

Garnett pledges to strengthen efforts to protect consumers from fraud and to vigorously enforce environmental laws.

Suthers said he will continue defending the state’s water rights and will advise the new administration how constitutional limits on state spending might be changed. Colorado’s next governor – Ritter is not seeking re-election – faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit next year.

“We’ve got ourselves in a position where unless we come up with a reliable funding stream in the next couple years, we’re going to be out of the higher education business,” Suthers said.

Health care lawsuit aside, Suthers insists he works easily with Democrats.

He said he provided the legal justification for Ritter to allow state workers to unionize, even though he disagreed with the policy.

“We went over there with a 54-page memo … and said, ‘Governor, this is how you do what you want to do,'” Suthers said. “But at the end of the conversation I say, ‘By the way, Bill, I think it’s the dumbest thing you ever did. This is a solution in search of a problem.’