Utah Attorney General David Wilkinson is "preoccupied with pornography" and should spend more time prosecuting murderers and rapists than pursuing moral issues, Democratic challenger Paul Van Dam said Friday.
In the first debate between the two attorney general candidates, Van Dam put Wilkinson on the defensive for taking the state's Cable TV Decency Act to the U.S. Supreme Court and for saying Van Dam was soft on pornography while serving as Salt Lake County attorney.Wilkinson, a Republican seeking his third term, countered by listing his accomplishments in office and by attacking Van Dam's record as a county attorney 10 years ago.
But the state's cable TV law, which was ruled unconstitutional by federal district and appeals courts, dominated much of the 90-minute debate at a sparsely attended luncheon of the Davis County Bar Association. The law granted the state power to regulate nudity, sex and sexual language on cable programs.
Van Dam, who trailed Wilkinson by 11 points in a Deseret News/KSL-TV poll last month, said Wilkinson cost the state $750,000 pursuing the case despite little chance of success.
"This has nothing to do with decency," Van Dam said about the cable TV law. "This is a constitutional issue. There is a serious lack of judgment (by Wilkinson) there."
Wilkinson said he pursued the case because he felt the law was constitutional. He said notable attorneys such as Rex E. Lee, the former U.S. solicitor general, and Harold Christensen, who has been nominated as deputy U.S. attorney general, agreed.
Wilkinson reached in his briefcase and pulled out copies of letters of support from Lee and Christensen and published in a local newspaper. Wilkinson also said he has won other cases at the U.S. Supreme Court after losing in lower courts.
"We know when we have a chance and we don't give up when we have a chance," he said.
Van Dam said Lee and Christensen are fellow Republicans who could be expected to support Wilkinson.
Wilkinson defended his eight years in office, citing his help passing the Administrative Procedures Act as his biggest accomplishment. The act sets statewide standards for legal procedures, eliminating what had been separate standards in each agency.
He said the state's victory in a dispute with the federal government over ownership of the bottom of Utah Lake also was a major accomplishment, as was the successful execution of convicted murderer Pierre Dale Selby.
Van Dam asked Wilkinson to explain why some state prosecutors are leaving for better jobs, suggesting many are quitting because the state often hires outside law firms to pursue big cases.
"It's not just salaries," Van Dam said. "I've found in my experience that attorneys don't practice law because they expect to earn a lot of money."
But Wilkinson said the state spends little money hiring outside attorneys. Prosecutors who have recently quit went to jobs that in some cases paid 50 percent more than the state, he said.
Van Dam defended his opposition to pornography while a county attorney, saying he believes local city attorneys, not county or state attorneys, should be the ones to pursue those cases.
"He (Wilkinson) wants to put so many resources in these moral kinds of things," Van Dam said. "Local prosecutors are holding the line on that quite well."