All summer long, champions and foes of same-sex marriage have barraged Colorado Attorney General John Suthers with phone calls and e-mails. Boxes of messages and missives fill a corner of his communications director's office. She reports the public's comments to her boss, and he shrugs them off. Suthers wants to focus on the letter of the law — not the letters that zealous citizens send.
He's certainly devoted his career to the law. Suthers, a Republican born in Denver and raised in Colorado Springs, graduated from the University of Colorado Law School in 1977. He has served as district attorney for the 4th Judicial District and as the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections. In 2001, George W. Bush nominated Suthers to be United States Attorney for the District of Colorado; when Democrat Ken Salazar was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 in the middle of his term as Colorado attorney general, Governor Bill Owens chose Suthers to be his replacement. Suthers was elected to a full term as AG in 2006 — the same year that Coloradans passed a constitutional amendment requiring that marriage be between a man and a woman — and again in 2010. Because of term limits, he will leave the office in January.
Throughout his career, Suthers has found himself arguing for laws he dislikes. He supports gun rights — but at work he must defend Colorado's restrictive firearms policies. Because he loathes the government's interference in small businesses, he sympathizes with Jack Phillips, the Christian baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple; nevertheless, Suthers is prosecuting the baker for discrimination. Gun lovers and Phillips supporters alike have made violent threats against Suthers; his staff has reported them to law enforcement. Compared to those complaints, irate same-sex marriage supporters seem almost tame.
But neither death threats nor mannerly letters sway Suthers in his legal duties. At heart, Suthers says, he is a lawyer — and whether or not the law agrees with his beliefs or those of his constituents, he will strive to defend it.
In June, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court overseeing several states, including Colorado, found Utah's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional and stayed its decision for review by the U.S. Supreme Court; the court is expected to announce soon whether it will take up the case. But in the meantime, led by Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall ("Hall Pass," August 14), three Colorado county clerks ignored the stay and began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Suthers tried to stop them, and after a series of legal defeats, in late July he convinced the Colorado Supreme Court to shut down the clerks until the Colorado court could consider the issue later this year. After that, Suthers took a much-needed vacation out of the country — and away from e-mail. We caught up with him soon after his return to talk about his long, hot summer.
Westword: You've had a big summer dealing with judicial issues around same-sex marriage. Talk about what it's been like.
John Suthers: You've got to understand, this is a very large public office. We've got 450 employees and 275 lawyers. There is an incredible amount going on. Certain things make the paper, others don't. But my day-to-day life is the whole picture. My average day is a bunch of half-hour or hour meetings about a whole plethora of issues, from interstate water to utilities and all that kind of stuff. Not all of that has an equal footing in the eyes of the public. But from our perspective in the office, that's just what we do. I tell my lawyers every day: It's their job to be the best lawyer they can be in whatever area they're endeavoring in. I consider that my responsibility, also. While this particular issue has attracted so much attention, from my perspective I'm just demanding of myself the same thing that I'm demanding of all the lawyers in this office: Just try to be the best lawyer you can be, play the appropriate statutory constitutional role as attorney general, and let the cards fall where they may in terms of public perception or anything else.
When did same-sex marriage come across your desk, and how did we get from there to here?
This has been developing for a long time. It started in 2006, when the voters put it in the Colorado Constitution. It therefore became the responsibility of the attorney general to defend the law. As challenges have come up over time, we have done the best job we can to do that. If you want to know the immediate process for what brought this to the foreground, the Tenth Circuit decided a case out of Utah. Utah has a law virtually identical to Colorado's. So when the Tenth Circuit, on a two-to-one decision, says Utah's law is unconstitutional, that would cover Colorado, if you will. But the Tenth Circuit said: "We are staying our order pending appeal to the United States Supreme Court." That meant that the current law in Utah, in Colorado, in Kansas, in all the other states in the Tenth Circuit remains in effect.