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Duke W. Dunbar

Duke W. Dunbar

Duke W. Dunbar

31st Colorado Attorney General
Term: 1951-1973

               By 1950 the population of Colorado had reached 1,325,000. After World War II, many veterans who had been stationed at military facilities in Colorado moved to the state. The Cold War was in full swing and federal installations in the state were growing. Colorado was becoming a popular tourist destination for newly affluent Americans.

               In the 1950 general election Attorney General John Metzger faced the same opponent he had defeated in 1948, Duke Dunbar. A Republican, Dunbar had joined the Attorney General’s Office as an Assistant in 1941 and served as Deputy Attorney General under Lawrence Hinkley. When Dunbar lost the 1948 election he served two years as attorney for the Denver City Council. By 1950 Metzger had become a controversial figure and Dunbar called him a “publicity hound.” Dunbar won by promising the voters he’d get the office back to the business of lawyering for the state. He also benefited from a strong Republican showing in the races for Governor and U. S. Senate. Republican Dan Thornton defeated incumbent Walter Johnson in the Governor’s race.

               Duke Wellington Dunbar was born September 3, 1894 in Mount Sterling, Illinois. He attended public schools in Quincy, Illinois, on the Mississippi River near the Missouri border. He put himself through law school at the University of Michigan. His law studies were interrupted for two years by service in the Navy in World War I and he graduated in 1920. After practicing in Illinois for some time he moved to Colorado with his wife Eva. A family member had tuberculosis and a doctor recommended a drier climate. In Colorado he was associated in the practice of law with Frank Hickey before joining the Attorney General’s Office in 1941. Hickey later became a Denver District Court Judge. Dunbar had close ties to the movie industry and lobbied on its behalf. He often handed out free movie passes to legislators and provided various institutions with free films.

               When he took office in 1951, Dunbar appointed former Attorney General Lawrence Hinkley as his Deputy Attorney General, thus returning the favor Hinkley had bestowed on him. Dunbar would seek and win reelection as Attorney General in 1952, 1954, 1956, 1958, 1962, 1966, and 1970. In the process he became the only Attorney General to serve more than eight years and the longest state officeholder in Colorado history. He typically won elections by wide margins and was for several years the only Republican to hold statewide office. Over his 22 year tenure the office staff doubled, as did the office budget.[1]

               Dunbar took pride in surrounding himself with a staff of capable, young lawyers. Some called the Attorney General’s Office “Dunbar University” because the office trained them before they graduated to business, law firms or other government positions.

               Over the course of his lengthy tenure the work of the Attorney General’s Office grew dramatically. The office was involved in numerous quiet title and condemnation actions on behalf of a growing state government. In 1951 it was involved in a suit brought against King Soopers for selling items below cost in violation of Colorado law. Ironically, it would be a suit against King Soopers 56 years later under the same statute that would cause the Attorney General’s Office to successfully seek revision of the state’s below cost pricing law. In 1951 Dunbar opined, consistent with the Cold War climate, that even college professors from foreign countries had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Another 1951 opinion elaborated on the meaning of the word “is” under a Game and Fish Commission statute, thus setting the stage for a similar debate when President Bill Clinton asked the same question 45 years later. Still another 1951 opinion held that, while the state would pay burial expenses if an executed inmate’s body was unclaimed, the family and friends of the deceased must do so if they claim the body.[2]

               Opinions issued in 1953 and 1954 were fairly mundane. The Game and Fish Division could not pay a bounty on mountain lion hides. The Mount Evans Road could not be converted to a toll road by Clear Creek County. Property acquired by the Atomic Energy Commission was not subject to state taxes. The federal Civil Rights Act was still a decade away and one opinion gave clarification to the legal prohibition of marriage between whites and persons of color.[3]

               In 1956, the Colorado General Assembly referred to the voters a state constitutional change that, beginning in 1958, allowed statewide officials, including the Attorney General, to serve four-year terms. The office was involved in several capital punishment cases, the most famous of which was against John Gilbert Graham. Graham put a bomb in his mother’s luggage and it blew up an airliner, killing 44 people. The office assisted the federal government in acquiring more land for Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. It also assisted in a 1955 grand jury investigation of the Montezuma County District Attorney.

               The Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion clarifying that the state could not keep a voluntarily committed mental patient more than ten days without a court order. It also opined that the Good Shepherd Home (for unwed mothers) and the Denver Juvenile Hall were not “schools” within the statute prohibiting consumption of liquor in “public schools.” Finally, it determined that distribution of Gideon Bibles through public schools in Colorado would violate the First Amendment.[4]

               By 1957 and 1958, the attention of the office had turned to confidence games, swindling, and narcotics. The Air Force Academy was built near Colorado Springs and the first class graduated in 1959. The Public Utilities Commission was beginning to produce a lot of work for the office. A Denver institution, Duffy’s Tavern, had its liquor license temporarily suspended. The Attorney General formally opined that bingo was, in fact, illegal gambling.[5]

               In June 1957 Jean Breitenstein resigned from the U. S. District Court to join the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Duke Dunbar was named in a Denver Post article as a possible replacement. But Senator Gordon Allott recommended, and President Eisenhower appointed, state District Court Judge Alfred Arraj.

               In 1960, Denver was awarded a pro football franchise in the American Football League. The team would be named the “Broncos.” Duke Dunbar took a major interest in highway safety, serving for many years as chairman of the Colorado Highway Safety Council. Posting of the Ten Commandments on state property was deemed a violation of the Constitution. The Seventeenth Judicial District was created. Reflecting the view of many of his predecessors, Attorney General Dunbar said he thought his staff of 26 attorneys was insufficient for the work required of them.[6]

               By 1960 Colorado’s population had reached 1,754,000. The Attorney General’s Office was bringing numerous condemnation actions to facilitate the state’s expanding highway system. The state’s criminal caseload, and consequently the Attorney General’s criminal appeals caseload, was growing quickly. Several appeals involved the death penalty, including that of David Early who was subsequently executed. Another high profile appeal involved the conviction of Joseph Corbett for the murder of Adolph Coors, III. Duke Dunbar served as president of the National Association of Attorneys General from October 1960 to September 1961. He was the first from Colorado to do so.

               In 1962 a political neophyte, Colorado Springs lawyer John Love, was elected Governor. Duke Dunbar won reelection as Attorney General for the sixth time. The Smaldone family and their gambling and narcotics empire were being pursued by both state and federal law enforcement officials. The appeal of Louis Monge, whose execution in 1967 would be the last in Colorado for many years, was winding through the courts. An anti-discrimination commission was established in Colorado.

               In 1963 the Colorado legislature, at the urging of Attorney General Dunbar, passed the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. Dunbar considered it one of his proudest accomplishments. The office placed an increasing emphasis on consumer protection and filed the first lawsuit under the Act, People ex. rel. Dunbar v. Gym of America, in 1968.

               Between 1962 and 1965, the disposition of poisonous wastes into a deep well at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal resulted in earth tremors around the Denver area. The state would bring a suit against the U.S. Army and Shell Corporation to force cleanup of the site in 1983, and in 2007 a claim for damage to the environment would still be in litigation. In 1965 a huge cloudburst resulted in massive flooding in Colorado. The South Platte Valley suffered widespread property damage and loss of life.

               The Colorado Bureau of Investigation was created by the General Assembly in 1967 and located within the Attorney General’s Office. The Director was to be appointed by the Attorney General. One year later, the General Assembly moved the CBI to the Office of Local Affairs. It would subsequently be moved to the Department of Public Safety. In 1968, the Legislative Reference Office was abolished and a Legislative Drafting Office was created in the legislative branch. Also, the Division of Securities was transferred from the Attorney General’s Office to the Department of Regulatory Agencies. In 1971 the legislature created the Office of Administrator of the Uniform Consumer Credit Code and provided that the administrator is to be an Assistant Attorney General appointed by the Attorney General.

               By 1970 the population of Colorado had grown to 2,210,000. Colorado Springs had surpassed Pueblo to become the second largest city in Colorado. In the 1970 election Attorney General Dunbar, seeking his eighth term, was challenged by a Democratic State Senator from Pueblo, J. D. MacFarlane. It was a hotly contested race between the 76-year-old incumbent and the 39-year-old challenger. MacFarlane accused Dunbar of conflicts of interest. He alleged that many Assistant Attorneys General had associations with private firms and that Dunbar had a financial interest in the Denver firm of Winner, Berge, Martin and Clark and retained it to handle cases for the state.[7] But the veteran campaigner Dunbar was well known to Colorado voters. He largely ignored the accusations and swept to another victory.

               In the 1972 general election Colorado voters significantly amended the provisions of the Colorado Constitution pertaining to the governance of the University of Colorado and recognizing the emergence of campuses in Denver and Colorado Springs. Over time the Attorney General’s Office would authorize both CU and Colorado State University to have their own counsel’s offices, as long as lawyers in the offices served as special assistant attorney’s general and no litigation was conducted without authorization of the Attorney General.

               On November 2, 1972 Dunbar attended a Joint Budget Committee meeting to discuss his office budget. In the course of the hearing, he felt a severe pain in his head and asked for a recess. By the time he reached his office on the first floor of the capitol, he had lost his eyesight. He was suffering a stroke. Two Assistants drove him to St. Luke’s Hospital where he died at 2:10 a.m. on November 3rd. More than 400 people attended his funeral. Governor John Love eulogized Duke Dunbar as a “remarkable figure in Colorado history. He served with distinction, integrity, concern and compassion. He served the state at a high level for longer than anyone else in our state’s history.” Dunbar is buried at Fairmont Cemetery in Denver.

[1] Rocky Mountain News, May 23, 1970.

[2] Biennial Report of the Attorney General for 1951-1952, Colorado State Archives.

[3] Biennial Report of the Attorney General for 1953-1954, Colorado State Archives.

[4] Biennial Report of the Attorney General for 1955-1956, Colorado State Archives.

[5] Biennial Report of the Attorney General for 1957-1958, Colorado State Archives.

[6] Biennial Report of the Attorney General for 1959-1960, Colorado State Archives.

[7] Denver Post, September 12, 1970, p. 79.