Cynthia Coffman: Attorney general must retain authority to sue
November 2, 2015
As Colorado's attorney general, I was elected to serve as the people's lawyer. My effectiveness depends on my ability to make independent legal decisions that defend the rule of law and protect our state's authority to govern itself.
My role as a separately elected constitutional officer and the state's chief legal officer at times requires that I question whether the federal government is acting within the law or has exceeded its grant of legal authority from Congress. I firmly believe one of the central roles of the state attorneys general is to push back against federal agency action when it crosses the line from legitimate policymaking to unlawful overreach. Once states relinquish their authority to the federal government in key regulatory areas, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to restore our autonomy to decide what is best for our state.
Recently, Gov. Hickenlooper and I have disagreed about whether Colorado should sue the federal government when it overreaches and tries to take legal authority away from the state and its residents. The latest case challenges the Environmental Protection Agency's new regulations (commonly referred to as the Clean Power Plan) to cap carbon dioxide emissions in a manner that reorders our country's power grid.
The governor disagrees with my legal position. Breaking from the practice during his tenure, he said he will file suit in the Colorado Supreme Court to prevent me from taking legal action on behalf of the state without his express permission. He asserts he is the one entitled to represent the state's position, both as a matter of policy and on important questions of law. But this is not what the state constitution or our laws say.
Colorado law clearly grants the attorney general the ability to take independent legal action in the public interest. If, as the governor asserts, only he can determine when Colorado files or joins a lawsuit, he can prevent important legal questions form being put before our courts simply because he wishes to avoid conflict with this administration.
Thankfully, the framers of the state constitution chose a system of government that includes a plural executive — a system in which the powers of the executive branch are diffused so they cannot be wielded by a single person. Each statewide elected official has their own authority and the attorney general's is to uphold the rule of law.
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Everyday when I go to work, I have one priority: my duty to represent the legal interests of the people of Colorado. That means I can't simply defer to the federal government or to the governor when I think they are wrong. I must use my own, independent legal judgment and make my own thoughtful decisions. That is what I have done since taking my oath of office, and that is what I'll continue doing as the people's lawyer.
Cynthia H. Coffman is attorney general of Colorado.