DENVER — John Suthers has moved from district attorney in El Paso and Teller counties to U.S. attorney and now state attorney general — pinnacle to pinnacle, as he puts it.
But if winning what he calls the “legal trifecta” ever goes to his head, he can simply glance at a needlepoint his sister made for him after he won his first term as district attorney. The brown piece of cloth, which has hung from a small brass rod and chain in each of his offices since that 1989 election, reads “sic transit gloria mundi,” or “quickly passes the glory of the world.”
Suthers said the phrase was whispered in the ears of returning Roman war heroes as a reminder to remain humble.
Humility might seem an improbable characteristic for a man who has campaigned for and won political office, been active in Republican politics for years and whose office walls bear photos of him with such luminaries as George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Janet Reno.
But Suthers’ colleagues and friends say he is sincere, genuine and driven by an impartial respect for the law.
“Suthers was a guy who just sat down to do his job and did it very, very well,” said Greg Goldberg, an assistant U.S. attorney both under Suthers and his predecessor, Democrat Tom Strickland.
A decade ago, Suthers said he would consider running for the U.S. House if GOP Rep. Joel Hefley decided to run for the Senate. Suthers now says the only office he has his eye is the one he occupies, serving the final two years of Sen. Ken Salazar’s term. He said it was likely he would run for a full term as attorney general in 2006.
Politics is deeply ingrained in Suthers, but for all the right reasons, said David Johnson, a Colorado Springs attorney and longtime friend.
“I think his motives are, it has to be toward the public good, not for John Suthers to become more famous, more powerful or to have a lot of perks. I think he’s very clear on why he’s doing these things,” said Johnson, a Democrat. “The only thing I’ve got to criticize him about is he’s a Republican.”
Even so, Suthers has kept in place many of the experienced prosecutors Strickland gave positions of leadership in the U.S. attorney’s office.
“I was thinking there’ll be a whole lot of shuffling now,” Goldberg said. “And sure enough, that didn’t happen. That was my first solid impression of Suthers, was ‘Wow, this guy doesn’t have to play politics to show he’s boss. He’s competent enough and has enough confidence in his skills to say Strickland made all the right choices and I’m leaving them.’”
Suthers also replaced a Democrat — Ken Salazar — as Colorado attorney general, following what he called a mostly pleasant confirmation hearing with a majority Democrat Senate.
“I think they appreciated the fact that most of the positions I take that are contrary to theirs are fairly thoughtful positions,” Suthers said. “And I think they were comforted by the fact that my record shows that — and they have some sense that — I will be controlled by the rule of law as opposed to any particular philosophical differences we might have.”
One of Suthers’ critics noted that strict view, saying as a prosecutor, Suthers lacked appropriate judgment.
“Overall, John’s a good public servant,” said Colorado Springs criminal defense attorney Greg Walta, a self-described civil liberties “absolutist” who appeared with Suthers on a panel discussion in November 2002 about the effect the push to increase homeland security was having on civil rights.
“I think he would set inflexible rules and follow them, but didn’t have the human experience to make sound judgments in individual cases,” Walta said.
A month after he was born in Denver in 1951, Suthers was adopted by Catholic parents. They enrolled him in St. Mary’s High School, and he won a full scholarship to attend Notre Dame and received his law degree from the University of Colorado in 1977.
He served for about three years as a deputy district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties before joining a Colorado Springs law firm. In 1989, he was elected district attorney and held the seat until 1997, when he lost a bid for attorney general to Salazar.
Suthers returned to private practice until 1999, when a newly elected Gov. Bill Owens appointed him executive director of the state Department of Corrections.
President Bush appointed Suthers U.S. attorney for Colorado in 2001, and he was sworn in less than two weeks before the terrorist attacks that transformed the country and his job description.
“That day, all U.S. attorneys were told that until further notice, anti-terrorism would be the highest priority,” Suthers told The Associated Press in a December 2001 interview. “Before that, we were talking about prosecuting gun violations, drug violations, organized crime, cyber crime. While these are still on the priority list, the No. 1 (priority) has changed.”
Of his new office, he now says: “This will be a lot less cloak-and-dagger for me.”
Barely a month removed from his role as the top federal law-enforcement officer in Colorado, Suthers said he had no problem defending a state’s rights viewpoint on any conflicts between state and federal law.
That includes the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana program.
While Suthers was U.S. attorney, federal authorities seized marijuana and growing and smoking equipment from several people who held state certificates allowing doctor-approved use of the drug. In a case involving a Hayden man, a Routt County judge ordered federal officers to return marijuana and found them in contempt when they refused. Suthers’ office fought the contempt charge, saying there is no legal use of marijuana under federal law.
Suthers calls the medical marijuana program “terrible public policy,” but pledged to defend it against the government if he must.
Pointing to a Colorado flag lapel pin that replaced an ever-present U.S. flag pin, Suthers said “I’m a lawyer. I’m an advocate and I know who my client is and it’s the state of Colorado.”