Interview with Colorado Attorney General John Suthers '77

April 29, 2005

On Thursday, April 21, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers ’77 visited the Law School to talk with students about public service in the legal profession and his priorities in office.  Before his talk, which was sponsored by the RLS and the Federalist Society, he met with Kirsten Dueck, Director of Alumni Relations and Communications for a brief interview. Kirsten Dueck: Your bio reflects a life of public service – what first attracted you to the law? John Suthers: I had a very vague notion that I’d like to spend some portion of my career in public service but I had no specificity about it when I graduated from the Law School.  I had clerked in the DA’s office in Colorado Springs, for credit as an extern working in a government office, for virtually my entire second year of law school and then again in the summer afterwards and loved the experience. When I started looking around for jobs I considered the private sector also, and I had an offer from a firm in Denver for a lot more money.  The DA’s office started at just $800 a month, but it was in Colorado Springs which is where I was from, and I’d enjoyed the clerking experience so much that I decided I’d give that a go.  I wound up staying about 3 1/2 years being a deputy and chief deputy and then I went into private practice but I loved being in the DA’s office so much that I thought that if I ever had the chance to run for DA, I’d do it.  I wound up running for District Attorney, served two terms, and the then I went back to private practice for a while and I found that my attitude toward private practice was not as receptive as it had been for the first eight years because I’d had a taste of significant public service and the joys of choosing my cases.  And when you do well in one public service position sometimes you have an opportunity to take on another: the Governor asked me to be in his cabinet so I took the Corrections job and the next thing I knew the President of the United States was nominating me to be US Attorney and the next thing I knew the Governor was calling to say “I need to choose a new Attorney General, what do you think?”My attitude has been to do the best job I can in whatever job I’m in and if that leads to other opportunities, fine, and if not I’ll go back to private practice. But one thing leads to another so I’ve spent about 17 years in the public sector.KHD: That legal career has been built on the foundation of your law school education.  In choosing a law school how did you decide on CU? JS: I had gone to Notre Dame undergrad on virtually a full scholarship.  I got into Georgetown and a couple other law schools but there were some financial considerations.  I also knew I wanted to practice law in Colorado.  CU then, as now, was a tough school to get into, so once I did get in CU was the clear choice.It was an interesting experience.  I came to law school straight out of undergrad and in hindsight I think it’s better to do something in between.  I have a daughter who’s at Georgetown now and she took a couple of years off before which makes her a lot more enthusiastic about law school than I was.  But I finished in the top 25% and enjoyed it a lot.  It was a great intellectual experience.  I can’t say it was anything in the classroom that drew me to public service—it was mostly that extern experience: among other things, I got involved in the special prosecution of Ted Bundy until he escaped.  The DA’s office in Colorado Springs was prosecuting that case and I was doing the legal research.  We were two weeks away from trial when unfortunately he escaped and killed three more women before he was captured.  I also was involved in all the legal research on some death penalty cases for some heinous murders around Colorado Springs when I was an extern.  I just enjoyed so much being part of a prosecution team and feeling that I was making a difference.  I knew that the DA’s office would be a great place to start out. KHD: What have you found most fulfilling about your practice, either in private practice or in the public sector?JS: What I love about being a prosecutor (I have broader responsibilities now but I’m still a prosecutor of sorts) is that you’re in control.  If you feel that you need to be very aggressive you can be very aggressive.  If you feel like justice dictates something else in a particular case you can do that.  And I think that’s one of the reasons there’s such an incredibly high satisfaction rate among prosecutors—you don’t see anyone leaving it because they don’t like what they’re doing.   I love the fact that you have the ability to make a very positive impact on society and on people’s lives—the victims’ families, the victims themselves—and you have control over doing justice as you see it in a particular case.KHD: What have you found most frustrating? JS:   I think resources issues at various points.  I’m going through a bit of shellshock right now: the difference in resources between the federal government and the state government in Colorado right now is dramatic, especially in terms of pay scales.  Pay scales in the US Attorneys Office were so much higher than they are in state government, so it’s harder to attract the kind of talented lawyers you’d like at the front end, although we still get a fair share of great people. KHD: You’ve talked about the privilege of setting your own legal agenda: what do you perceive as the most pressing legal issues, the greatest challenges facing Colorado?JS: Number 1, let me state it very simply: it’s my job to protect Colorado’s interests under the nine interstate water compacts so that we preserve every drop of water we’re possibly entitled to.  Secondly, the CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation & Liability Act, or Superfund] environmental legislation that requires cleanup of hazardous sites and also allows the state to bring natural resource damage claims was created in the early 1980s.  They’re all sites that every Coloradan knows about: Rocky Flats, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, etc. There are about 12 of these cases that have been pending since 1983.  Most of the cleanups are done now so we’re now at the point that we ought to be trying to bring the natural resource damage claims to resolution.  Colorado can take the money and do what it should, and the companies can take these liabilities off their books get on with their lives.  That’s a big high priority for me. Then finally, there’s a huge gap between the protection offered against investment scams and securities fraud by what the US Attorney and the SEC can do at the federal level, and what the district attorneys can do.  The Attorney General has to fill that gap.  What’s inhibited the AG’s office is we have no independent investigative resources.  We’ve been wholly reliant on the Colorado Securities division.  I’m trying to change that and I think we’ll be successful this year in getting some independent investigative resources that will allow us to increase our capabilities in pursuing the huge gap that lies between what the US Attorney is doing and what most district attorneys are doing.KHD: The big news around the Law School and around the state is your recent appointment of CU Law Professor Allison Eid as Solicitor General.  What were the qualities that you sought in an SG and how did those factors lead you to Allison Eid? JS: The Solicitor General’s job is the think tank of an Attorney General’s office.  That’s the person who reviews all the cases that are going through the office: what ought to be appealed and what shouldn’t be appealed; what has the possibility of establishing good precedent and what has the possibility of establishing bad precedent.  So, first and foremost, you want a top-notch legal mind.  Second you want someone with some familiarity with the appellate process and how appellate judges think.  When you combine all those things Allison is the perfect candidate.  She’s been a Supreme Court clerk.  She’s seen very high quality appellate advocacy. She’s an outstanding legal mind that is philosophically compatible with mine in terms of how I see the world and what I think we ought to be trying to accomplish in the courts.  She’s just a perfect fit.