In 2004, Ken Salazar was elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Because he took office in January of 2005, in the middle of his second term as Attorney General, Republican Governor Bill Owens would appoint his replacement to serve until the November 2006 general election. He appointed John Suthers, who served from 2005 to 2015.
John William Suthers was born in Denver on October 18, 1951. Born to an unwed mother, he was adopted when he was a month old. He grew and attended Catholic schools in Colorado Springs. His adoptive parents died when he was young, but he was able to obtain scholarships to the University of Notre Dame and the University of Colorado Law School. After graduating from law school in 1977 he served as a Deputy and Chief Deputy District Attorney in Colorado Springs. In 1981 he entered private practice and in 1988 he defeated an incumbent to be elected to the first of two terms as District Attorney for the Fourth Judicial District. He returned to private practice in 1997 until being appointed director of the Colorado Department of Corrections in 1999. In 2001 he was appointed by President George W. Bush as United States Attorney for the District of Colorado, where he served until appointed as acting Attorney General.
By the time John Suthers became Colorado’s thirty-seventh Attorney General, the office had about 350 employees, including 230 lawyers. He appointed Cynthia Honssinger Coffman, Governor Owens’ legal counsel, to become Chief Deputy Attorney General. She would succeed him as Colorado Attorney General when he left office due to term limits in 2015. University of Colorado law professor Allison Eid was appointed Solicitor General only to be appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court one year later.
Other notable appointees include Monica Marquez, Colorado Supreme Court Justice, and Bernie Buescher, a high profile Democrat legislator from Grand Junction, who had previously served as Secretary of State and as Chairman of the Joint Budget Committee; both had served as Deputy for the State Services Section. Maurice Knaizer, whose career at the Attorney General’s Office spanned 33 years and 5 attorneys general, retired to the dismay of colleagues and clients alike.
In his first two years as Attorney General, Suthers instituted several public safety initiatives. His “Safe Surfing” initiative educated children and adults in Colorado about the dangers on the Internet posed by sexual predators and “internet luring” and “internet sexual exploitation” laws were passed which allowed law enforcement to intervene earlier and arrest a predator for actions taken solely through the Internet, and made possession of child pornography a felony.
In 2006 the General Assembly established a statewide methamphetamine task force to deal with the scourge of meth in Colorado. The attorney general was statutorily designated as its chairman. The task force was successful enough that it was extended by the legislature in 2013 and its mission broadened to address other emerging substance abuse problems, including prescription drug abuse. It was renamed the Colorado Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force.
In 2010 the office, with the Denver District Attorney’s Office, undertook a DNA exoneration project in which cases were reviewed where inmates maintained their innocence and DNA testing was not available at the time of their conviction. In 2012 that process resulted in the exoneration of Robert Dewey who had been convicted of murder in Grand Junction sixteen years earlier. Suthers held that prosecutors should be as zealous to exonerate the innocent as they are to convict the guilty.
Building on the Special Prosecution Unit and efforts of LuzMaria Shearer, the office was very involved with the effort by the Conference of Western Attorneys General (CWAG) to train over 260 prosecutors and investigators as Mexico converted to a public, adversarial court system in order to stem widespread corruption in Mexico. The office was very involved in the training efforts from 2008 to 2014, with Suthers chairing CWAG in 2009 and 2010.
An interesting case in 2006 involved a Saudi Arabian national living in Colorado who was convicted of enslaving his Indonesian maid and sexually assaulting her. The jury convicted him and the Arapahoe County District Court judge sentenced him to 20 years to life in prison. At the request of the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Attorney General Suthers and the Governor’s Legal Counsel, Jon Anderson, traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah and the perpetrator’s high profile family to explain the charges and the American justice system, and quell claims in the Arab media of bias against Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. As of 2015, Homaidan Al-Turki remains in prison.
In a significant case began in 2005, rural public school students brought suit against the state alleging that their schools were underfunded and they were being deprived of a “thorough and uniform” education which was guaranteed in the Colorado Constitution. In Lobato v. Colorado, the Colorado Supreme Court finally resolved the case in 2013 ruling that the current school financing system was rationally related to the thorough and uniform funding requirement, saving the state billions in a potential funding directive, and returning determination of the adequacy of education funding to the voters and the legislature.
In 1983 Kansas sued Colorado for $380 million alleging Colorado had violated the Arkansas River Compact of 1949, which was finally decided for Kansas in 2005 awarding it $29 million. The Attorneys General of Colorado and Kansas personally argued the remaining dispute over costs and fees before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.
The Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an 18 square mile parcel northeast of Denver, had housed a chemical weapons plant for the Army in World War II and subsequently a pesticide plant operated by Shell Oil Company. The Army and Shell had spent $2.5 billion to clean up the site but a continuing controversy involved Colorado’s claim for permanent damages to ground water. These claims were finally settled in 2008 for $35 million which was reinvested in trails, open space acquisition and water resources around the Arsenal. With matching investments from local governments, the Northeast Corridor Greenway was created and a portion of the land was turned over to the federal government to create a national wildlife refuge. One of the state’s largest environmental disasters turned into a model of conservation excellence.
The office was similarly successful in finally resolving longstanding natural resource damage claims at Rocky Flats in 2008 which had been operated by the Department of Energy as a plutonium manufacturing site, and at California Gulch near Leadville which involved molybdenum pollution to the Arkansas River, recovering $21 million in damages in 2007.
During Suthers’ tenure, the liability cap for exceptions to the governmental immunity statute was $150,000 per person and $600,000 per incident until 2013, when it was raised to $440,000 per person and $900,000 per incident, largely in response to the Lower North Fork Fire in which a prescribed burn by State forestry workers raged out of control. A one-time cap was attached to this incident which destroyed 23 homes and killed 3 people.
To deal with Colorado’s high rate of foreclosures and mortgage fraud, Suthers initiated a Mortgage and Foreclosure Fraud Task Force that secured major changes in Colorado law. The Consumer Protection Section of the office, led by Deputy Attorney General Jan Zavislan, filed more Consumer Protection Act cases than any prior administration of the AG’s office. Multi-state cases were joined against large pharmaceutical companies for anti-trust violations and against various national mortgage lenders, including Ameriquest and Countrywide for a variety of fraudulent practices. These cases resulted in settlements that bought hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado and its citizens. Mortgage-related settlement funds that were not directed for restitution to victims were made available in grants to Boys and Girls Clubs, drug prevention organizations, Children’s Hospital, and other worthy organizations.
In 2010, a new scandal confronted the nation’s largest banks. Bank of America, Citibank, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Ally handled the servicing of about 62% of the nation’s mortgages. Many foreclosure documents, including affidavits and loan assignments, were being “robo-signed” rather than reviewed as was represented. Further, many loans were being “dual tracked” by the banks – negotiating a loan modification while simultaneously going full speed ahead on foreclosure in another part of the bank. The banks were also miscalculating fees and improperly forcing borrowers to buy mortgage insurance from them. Suthers was named to a six-person executive committee to negotiate with the banks. Represented primarily by Assistant Attorney General Andrew McCallin, the group eventually negotiated a settlement worth $25 billion of which Colorado received over $450 million in credits and $52 million in cash for foreclosed families and other housing issues. Suthers secured the agreement of 24 of 25 Republicans to sign on to the multi-state settlement, and a total of 49 state AGs approved the deal.
The Consumer Protection Section of the office also successfully sued Apple, Inc. and several large book publishers for price fixing e-books, and for-profit colleges were investigated and restitution received by students victimized by various deceptive recruitment claims. The ElderWatch program, a partnership with the AARP Foundation, continued to educate seniors around the state about fraud scams, including a hotline for seniors to call and an ID Theft Repair Kit was published.
In 2000 the voters of Colorado approved a constitutional amendment allowing patients with a “debilitating medical condition” to grow small amounts of marijuana or to have a “primary caregiver” grow it for them. By 2007 there were only about 1700 patients on the health department registry. Due in large part to a health board decision not to limit the number of patients per caregiver and President Barack Obama’s directive to the Department of Justice to not prosecute people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws, the rolls of patients swelled to 60,000 by 2009. Despite the strong opposition of a coalition of law enforcement, drug treatment specialists and the Attorney General, the legislature embraced the medical marijuana dispensary model and grow operations and patients numbered well over 125,000, mostly males under 40, the same demographic as users of other illicit drugs. In 2012 Colorado voters voted 55% to 45% to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana as well as large wholesale grow operations and retail distribution stores, all in violation of federal law. Touted as a great experiment, legal marijuana sales in Colorado had grown to a $1 billion industry by 2016.
John Suthers authored several books including No Higher Calling, No Greater Responsibility: A Prosecutor Makes His Case (Fulcrum Publishing, 2008) as well as histories of his prior public offices. His book, The People’s Lawyer: The History of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office (Morris Publishing, 2007), forms the substantial portion of the AG History section of the Colorado Attorney General’s website. The book compiled research conducted by employees at the time: Catherine Adkisson, Jane Christman, Darlene Hill, Patrick Kowaleski, Susan Lin, Casey Shpall, Mary Jane Vinette, and Jan Zavislan.
He was awarded the Kelley-Wyman award by the National Association of Attorneys General, the highest award for contributions to the Association, the President’s Award for his leadership in the national mortgage settlement in 2012, and the Governor’s Citizenship Medal for lifelong public service in 2015, as well as numerous civic and legal awards and appointments.
In January of 2012, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office moved a block to the newly constructed Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center. The 12-story office tower houses the Department of Law on 5½ floors, and is shared with the State Court Administrators Office, State Public Defender, and other legal administrative and judicial agencies. By 2014, the office had grown to 450 employees, including 275 attorneys, and had an annual budget of $69 million, and had recovered over $5 billion for the people of Colorado over the preceding 10 years. He secured funding from insurance and securities fraud convictions to expand that unit within the office.
John Suthers married Janet Gill, who was also raised in Colorado Springs, in 1976. They have two daughters and live in Colorado Springs, where he was elected Mayor in 2015.