AG Candidates Discuss Civil Rights

by Tony Flesor

While candidates for Colorado’s governor and 6th District congressional seat debated Tuesday evening, so did the attorney general candidates.

At a debate hosted by the Colorado Women’s Bar Association, Democrat Phil Weiser, Republican George Brauchler and Libertarian Bill Robinson discussed their views on issues related to civil rights, diversity in the office and criminal justice reform. The candidates hit many familiar points for their platforms — they also detailed their views on civil rights pertaining to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and the types of cases they’d like to see referred to the AG’s office from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

“At a time when our federal government may be showing time after time a willingness not to protect people, it’s more important than ever to have a state attorney general who stands up for the people of Colorado,” Weiser said. He emphasized his intention to stand up for Coloradans rights, particularly against the federal government.

He said he would bring diversity and issues regarding diversity to the AG’s office by creating the first deputy attorney general for diversity and inclusion.

Brauchler responded to the diversity plans with references to the diversity of his current district attorney’s office, which has roughly 50 percent women in many roles. He also said that there are only 14 black prosecutors in municipal, state and federal offices in Colorado and that he worked to bring the National Black Prosecutors Association to Aurora in order to improve recruitment.

On the issue of criminal justice reform, Brauchler said he believes the state should sunset all of its criminal laws in order to allow new ones to be created that reflect current societal values.

“We decide what we think about DUIs, we decide what we think about teen sexting, and we decided we think the appropriate penalties are for violent crime or property crime,” he said.

On criminal justice, Weiser promoted pursuing opioid lawsuits in order to use the money to provide drug treatment rather than jail time for drug offenders, pursuing bail reform and implementing more juvenile diversion programs.

Robinson was outspoken about the effects of the opioid epidemic but said he believed the government should not tell doctors how to prescribe medication.

The candidates also discussed the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and what types of cases they would like to see come from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Brauchler said he would not act as an activist attorney general, and in the instance of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, he indicated he would act as Coffman did. “Without question, what general Coffman did was absolutely appropriate, given the Civil Rights Commission is her client,” he said. He said the record, as pointed out by the Supreme Court, demonstrated bias and that he believes the next time a similar case comes through the commission, it will hold up to judicial scrutiny.

As for what he said he wants to see from the commission, he said he believes many instances of discrimination are not willful and instead are revealed only through data. He said he would pursue only the “most glaring discrimination out there.”

Weiser, however, said he was concerned with the idea of creating an exception that allows businesses to discriminate against certain groups.

“If you’re open for all comers, you can’t discriminate against people on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity and now, here in Colorado, sexual orientation or gender identity,” Weiser said. “The issue will come back again, and the question is whether our attorney general will stand on the side of defending our civil rights laws.”

The candidates also had some back-and-forth over the idea of how the office should decide which cases to pursue and litigate on behalf of the state. Weiser said he believes the office should use its judgment to evaluate a case rather than going “Full-steam ahead.”

“That’s what lawyers do at their best. We don’t simply do whatever clients ask, we don’t simply automatically litigate all the time,” Weiser said. “In fact, the worst form of lawyering is to be on autopilot.”

Brauchler pressed Weiser on that point. “I just heard Phil say you don’t always do what your clients ask you to do,” Brauchler rebutted. “If you’re an attorney out there, you know that short of being asked to do something unethical, that is exactly what you do.”

“George’s statement shows the limits of his knowledge about public lawyering, because there are different rules of professional responsibility for public lawyers,” Weiser said. “The attorney general has a responsibility to the people Colorado and to the rule of law here … . Just because one person made a mistake, our lawyers don’t have to be complicit. Indeed, the Rules of Professional Responsibility for public lawyers call for something different.