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For Colorado’s Cynthia Coffman, Defending Sovereignty Is Not Easy

"We sometimes end up defending causes that we don’t support, but that’s our job."

Cynthia Coffman has had a long career in law in Georgia and Colorado. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP file photo)
Cynthia Coffman has had a long career in law in Georgia and Colorado. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP file photo)

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s firm belief in the sovereignty of states and her determination to defend it at all costs have placed her in a few difficult positions.

Since becoming attorney general in 2014, Coffman, a Republican, has had to defend Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws, which she opposed before voters approved it. Last year, she joined two dozen states in a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, leading to tensions with Colorado’s Democratic governor who supports the plan.

Coffman is Colorado’s 38th attorney general and only the second woman to hold the position in the state. She succeeded her term-limited boss, Attorney General John Suthers, last year after a decade as his chief deputy.

“My heart is in the practice of law, so it made all the sense to me,” Coffman said of her decision to run for the state’s top law enforcement position. She easily defeated her Democratic opponent Don Quick in 2014.

When Coffman joined the lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s signature rule aimed at controlling carbon emissions and combating human-caused climate change, she said she did not expect her actions would put the top two state officials in a dispute over who holds the ultimate authority in the state.

“The Clean Power Plan is — I hate to use the term overreach — the federal government has gone over Congress’ authority,” Coffman told Roll Call in an interview. “When we see the federal government getting out of its lane and getting into ours, sometimes we have to push back.”

The state’s governor, John W. Hickenlooper, turned to the Colorado Supreme Court in November to settle the dispute over the legality of Coffman’s actions. “It was an unfortunate consequence; I would have certainly preferred we not go down that road,” Coffman said, adding that it still would not have changed her decision to sue.

The Colorado high court in December refused to consider the governor’s petition, saying Hickenlooper could use alternative remedies to deal with the issue.

“The court did not deny the importance of this issue nor did it uphold the legality of the attorney general’s actions,” Kathy Green, a spokeswoman for Hickenlooper, said in an email. But she said the governor is undecided about pursuing the matter in the district court.

Coffman’s former boss, Suthers, who is now mayor of Colorado Springs, defended Coffman, saying the attorney general gets to call the shots on the state’s legal position.

“She may well be on the right side of that case; that’s part of the job,” Suthers said.

Born in Lebanon, Missouri, Coffman recalls watching her father use his position of influence as a lawyer to become a leader in their small community.

“He was part of people’s lives, sometimes from cradle to grave,” she said. “I idolized him, there’s no question about that.”

She graduated from the University of Missouri and later got her law degree from Georgia State University.

Coffman’s legal career has included stints in the Georgia attorney general’s office and as a lawyer for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. She has also worked at the Colorado General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Council, at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and as chief counsel to former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.

When Colorado was set to vote to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes in 2012, Coffman thought it was a bad idea. Now she finds herself defending the same law she once opposed.

“It touches so many aspects of public safety,” Coffman says. “That said, the people voted for it and it’s my job to help carry out the law.”

She has had to defend Colorado against lawsuits from neighboring states, like Nebraska and Kansas, and from an anti-crime organization over the legalization of marijuana. 

“We sometimes end up defending causes that we don’t support, but that’s our job,” Coffman says.

Last year, Coffman found herself at the center of a maelstrom that rocked the state’s Republican Party. She was accused of attempting to shake up the local GOP leadership by privately trying to coax party chairman Steve House to resign. She now says everyone involved in that incident has moved on.

Coffman, who is married to Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado’s 6th District, also shut down rumors that she had eyes on a U.S. Senate seat. For now, she said, she has not made any further career plans, but anything she does will be in the legal field.

“I don’t have children — for many people, children are a legacy — my career and what I do is what I can leave as a legacy,” Coffman said.

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