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PROVO — Sharp differences emerged Wednesday between attorney general candidates Sean Reyes and Charles Stormont over defending Utah's ban on same-sex marriage.
Reyes, a Republican who the governor appointed to the job last December, said he has a duty to uphold state law. Stormont says he would not waste taxpayer money fighting an unconstitutional law in a case the state has no chance of winning.
"You tell your clients what their likelihood of success is going to be in court. It's time to actually start giving good, honest, fair legal advice to the people of Utah," said Stormont, a Democrat. "We've had far too much political advice on hot-button issues."
Reyes said the attorney general can't pick and chose which laws to uphold, whether they're passed by the Legislature or the voters, as was the case with Amendment 3 defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"You can't cut and run. You can't thwart the democratic process because you think that you're smarter than the Supreme Court," Reyes said. "If my opponent would take off his political glasses for a moment and put on his lawyer lenses or leader lenses, he would see how dangerous that precedent is that he's proposing."
Reyes and Stormont met Wednesday in an hourlong debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission at BYU. It might be the only time they meet head to head before the Nov. 4 election.
Stormont, an assistant attorney general who took unpaid leave to run for office, said he would like to debate more, but Reyes said he doesn't think his work schedule would allow it.
The candidates' differences over the same-sex marriage issue continued during separate news conferences after the debate.
Until that opinion comes, I can't just substitute my opinion, even if I think something might be unconstitutional because at that point I'm just guessing.
Reyes said it benefits everyone to have the nation's highest court settle the question, adding even the plaintiffs in the case want that.
"Until that opinion comes, I can't just substitute my opinion, even if I think something might be unconstitutional because at that point I'm just guessing," he said.
Stormont said 40 lower court rulings have already overturned bans on same-sex marriage.
"When you file an appeal and your opponent who won at the lower court level says we want it heard too, I think that tells you what kind of case you have," he said.
Defending Utah's marriage law wasn't the only issue the candidates disagreed on.
While both say the public corruption allegations against former attorneys general Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow tarnished the office, they have contrasting views about how to restore the public trust.
Stormont said he's "incredibly frustrated by the leadership crisis that infected the attorney general's office." He said Reyes is running the office under the same structure that prior administrations exploited. He said he would create a state ethics office to reform state government.
Reyes said he inherited an office "racked with scandal" and worked hard to bring back integrity and credibility. He said he has created an internal ethics committee and a public corruption unit.
In his closing statement, Reyes criticized Stormont for running what he sees as negative ads. He said he saw that tactic when he faced Swallow in the Republican primary election two years ago. He said it says something about how Stormont might lead.
Stormont responded in his news conference that the ads contrast how he and Reyes would manage the office, saying they show the difference between playing politics and serving the people.
The candidates also differed in their approaches to campaign finances.
Stormont said he won't take money from payday lenders, multilevel marketers, cable companies or biz ops firms. Reyes said he hasn't targeted any specific industries from which he won't take donations because it could stigmatize them. He said his campaign vets all contributions.